Single mom Lizzie (Noomi Rapace) carpools through an idyllic Melbourne neighborhood with the hedgerows in a blur, which is “Angel of Mine” director Kim Farrant’s way of establishing that this woman on the verge of a suburban breakdown can’t see past her nose. Between her divorce, her constant crying, her mental hospital stays and her dead-end job as a makeup clerk, Lizzie’s young son (Finn Little) needs more of her affection. “He feels your darkness,” warns her ex Mike (Luke Evans), who’s threatening to file for full custody. Yet, Lizzie only has eyes for acquaintance Claire’s (Yvonne Strahovski) 7-year-old daughter Lola (Annika Whiteley), a perfect moppet who could be Lizzie’s own daughter, if her infant hadn’t died in a hospital fire — a plot point that screenwriters Luke Davies and David Regal delay until we’re itchy for the script to blurt it out, already.
Could this child help Lizzie refocus her life? As Lizzie starts the film already an unstable mess gobbling pills in her workplace bathroom, no one, including the film, seems open to letting her babysit (especially with an increasingly disheveled Lizzie readily admitting, “This might sound crazy, I know”). Her solution is stalking — two shots of her outside, and inside, Lola’s bedroom could be “Halloween’s” Michael Myers without the mask — triggering a showdown between Lizzie and Claire that should have a gleefully shivery schadenfreude. Yet, Farrant, who also helmed 2015’s “Strangerland,” another parental nightmare that starred Nicole Kidman, has a King Solomon-esque approach to taking the premise seriously, vacillating between jump scares and self-conscious good taste.
Casting Rapace as a heartbroken obsessive makes sense. She specializes in playing characters who vibrate at a frequency rarely felt in the real world. Even here in Farrant’s ordinary shopping mall surroundings, slicking on pink lipstick in the mirror of her ordinary makeup-store job, she has the nervous energy of someone who doesn’t belong — a tension made even more miserable when Lizzie bluffs her way into Claire’s posh home as a potential buyer for when the wealthy family relocates to Perth. Davies and Regal enjoy the class tension of watching the rich couple glad-hand Lizzie, who struggles to maintain her pose as someone who could afford a manor home with separate rooms for the au pair and the piano. Yet, Rapace has been guided to be such a social misfit that it seems impossible the two aren’t instantly onto her ruse, as bizarre as it might be, particularly with Gabe Noel’s score of murmuring, insistent cellos adding to the anxiety.
Farrant shies away from making an ’80s/’90s-style purple melodrama where attractions were fatal and hands rocked the cradles. Instead, “Angel of Mine” (shot by Andrew Commis) is all hazy pastels, like a motel painting that gets more unnerving the longer one stares at it. Often, it’s too pathetic to enjoy either as insight or entertainment, as when Lizzie sabotages a date with a Prince Charming (Rob Collins), a fairytale hunk written just to make her seem extra nuts for throwing him away. Their two scenes together aren’t deep psychological analysis; they’re punishment. Better is Mike’s attempt to stage an intervention, during which Lizzie casts blame on everyone else but herself.
Though Rapace can twist her face into a tragedy mask, her rival Strahovski (of TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) anchors the film with a quieter performance that’s at once normal, loving, watchful and just self-satisfied enough to make you want Rapace to yank her long blonde hair. Strahovski’s Claire trusts in the power of popularity and manners, things Rapace has lost long before the story starts, and her increasing attempts to politely freeze out this vulture are delightful. As the child they both love, Whiteley’s Lola feels more like a fictional creation than a real girl, but she’s quite good at silent fear.
Oddly, after leaving us aching for the film to go off the rails, when “Angel of Mine” finally does in the final scene, its message is so screwy that the audience might feel as loopy as poor Lizzie. King Solomon could have warned that splitting the difference between pulp pleasure and maternal drama leaves audiences only half-satisfied.