A prodigal daughter returns in “Mary Goes Round,” discovering that the personal problems she’s been studiously ignoring only grow more inescapable in the presence of the estranged family members who more or less caused them. Molly McGlynn’s somewhat autobiographically inspired debut feature bears a certain resemblance to James Ponsoldt’s 2012 “Smashed,” with a similar young, middle-class alcoholic as heroine. But this film is lighter in tone, successfully blending drama and humor in a way that skirts pat dramedy. This modest but winning effort should do well on the festival circuit, and possibly beyond.
Mary (Aya Cash) is a 29-year-old Toronto resident with a serious partying jones. When after a latest inebriate night we see her among an addicts’ support group, we assume she’s ready to mend her ways. Then we realize she’s the meeting’s (not very good) facilitator. Working as a professional substance-abuse counselor gives Mary additional incentive to deny she’s in exactly the same boat as her clients. But that lie unravels when a DUI lands her in jail (and on YouTube). Her long-suffering boyfriend calls it quits after posting bail; her supervisor suspends her from her job until she gets the help she’s been doling out to others.
It’s as opportune a moment as any to finally answer many urgent messages from the father she’s barely communicated with and hasn’t seen in years — not since his own bad habits screwed up his marriage to her late mother. It’s cold comfort that Walt (John Ralston) has since sobered up, becoming a much-improved parent to his second daughter by a second wife, also deceased. He claims Mary’s teenaged half-sister Robyn (Sara Waisglass) has been clamoring to meet her.
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Upon turning up in Niagara Falls, however, Mary discovers not only that surly Robyn is displeased to see her, she claims not to have even known she had a half-sister. In fact, Walt’s real agenda is something quite different than his setup: He’s dying of cancer, hasn’t told Robyn and wants Mary to perform that unpleasant duty while hopefully forging a sisterly bond for the future. Naturally, this is crap news all around, with Mary, the badly treated offspring, being asked to do all the heavy lifting for a sibling who got the (comparatively) good parenting. While her demons aren’t quite ready to be dried out yet amid this stress, our heroine is now self-aware enough to acquire an unofficial local AA sponsor in the form of Lou (a fine turn by Melanie Nicholls-King). The latter has been around the block and in the gutter enough times to recognize denial when she sees it.
There are no prizes for guessing the general reconciliatory direction all these relationships are headed toward. But “Mary Goes Around” handles its story beats with a canny mixture of rueful humor, warmth and realism. The script by McGlynn (whose own immediate-family history is roughly akin to Mary’s) is understated and astute, with characters that never feel like “types” despite our having seen their ilk onscreen before. The actors are uniformly strong, the assembly confident, if lacking much in the way of any distinctive style.