The story of a young stranger who shows up on a woman’s doorstep claiming to be her stepsister — and thus potentially in line for a piece of their dead-music-legend father’s pie — “Barracuda” initially seems like just another run-of-the-mill thriller about a grifter carrying out a duplicitous scheme. Credit to Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin’s indie film, then, for quickly upending expectations and delivering a far more uneasy, ambiguous portrait of women desperate for recognition and acceptance. Though its slow-burn narrative doesn’t pay off in a wholly satisfying manner, this offbeat nail-biter should nonetheless be welcomed by those eager for something off the beaten genre path.
Arriving from immediate parts unknown, Londoner Sinaloa (Sophie Reid) proves a surprising guest to Austin, Texas, resident Merle (Allison Tolman) and her fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada) — especially once Sinaloa claims that she’s Merle’s half-sister, having been fathered and occasionally visited by their dearly departed country-icon daddy during his overseas tours. Merle naturally greets this news with more than a bit of skepticism, and her suspicions only grow after Raul impulsively (and, with regard to his wife, thoughtlessly) invites Sinaloa to stay with them. Making matters edgier still is Sinaloa’s behavior, which vacillates on a dime between rash cheeriness and goodwill toward Merle (whom she says she wants to embrace as her last living blood relative) and detached strangeness.
That latter quality is also matched, it becomes clear, with a mischievous — if not downright cunning — streak, which first manifests itself when, while preparing for a party at Merle’s familial estate, Sinaloa abruptly introduces herself to Merle’s mom Patricia (JoBeth Williams) as Merle’s sister. Spied early on in an out-of-focus closeup that suggests a mysterious identity, Sinaloa appears, on the surface, like your typical return-of-the-repressed villain, back to wreak havoc and claim a share of the clan’s fortunes. Such an assumption is certainly made by “black sheep” cousin Trace (Tanner Beard), who attempts to proposition Sinaloa on a money-making scheme. However, it’s at this point that “Barracuda” veers sharply to the left, even as it maintains its inherent mystery about who this long-haired woman is (a question complicated by the singer-songwriter skills she may have inherited from her father) and what she truly wants.
Aside from their fondness for framing figures in fuzzy compositions, Cortlund and Halperin’s direction is of a polished if standard variety, interjecting fleeting snapshots of lonesome highways, nighttime truck stops and Austin city construction projects into their action proper — all of it set to a gentle country-tinged score. There’s nothing particularly adventurous about their approach, but nothing unsteady either, which allows concentration to remain squarely on Tolman and Reid as their characters bob and weave around each other, at once far enough apart to maintain a sense of safety, and yet just close enough for discomfort. The palpable tension between them grows ever steadier as things progress, and from Sinaloa’s flick of a knife at a would-be friend, to her later attempt to force Merle to put a wounded dog out of its misery, the threat of mortal danger soon amplifies to a menacing degree.
More than Reid’s hard-to-read countenance, it’s the capable Tolman’s constant look of furrowed-brow concern and confusion that soon takes center stage in “Barracuda.” Merle’s emotional destabilization mounts as she comes to recognize this long-lost sibling as a kindred spirit, equally desperate for validation after a lifetime of neglect, if not outright abandonment, by a father who cast such an overwhelming shadow. No matter the violent incident that punctuates its climax, the film sidesteps clichés as it wends its way toward its conclusion, locating the tumultuous and corrosive alienation, loneliness and discontent that comes from being denied the appreciation everyone believes they deserve.