The last few years have already afforded us multiple opportunities to reflect on the remarkable talents of Margaret Qualley, an actor who, since breaking out in TV’s “The Leftovers,” has delivered pure, clear-eyed conviction to just about anything: She’s equally persuasive playing an anxious novice nun in “Novitiate,” the regally glamorous Ann Reinking in “Fosse/Verdon” or a dazed, flirty Manson girl in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” These are all good parts in good projects; the utter credibility she brings to “Strange But True” is another kind of achievement. Qualley shows up at the start of Rowan Athale’s daft behind-picket-fences thriller, so pregnant it’s a wonder she can walk at all, to announce with a sweet, straight face that she’s miraculously bearing the child of a boy who died five years before. And we utterly believe her, or at least we believe that she believes herself. Such is Qualley’s gift.
That’s as far as any belief goes, however, in “Strange But True,” an earnest but risible concoction of angsty Pottery Barn melodrama and hysterical suspense in which even the everyday domestic drama seems artificial, let alone its sequence of hypnic-jerk twists. (The title at least partly cops to its ludicrousness, but it could use a question mark.) Both ambitious and overwhelmed, this sophomore feature from British-Indian director Rowan Athale — whose festival-traveled debut “Wasteland” had lively promise and similarly hinky storytelling — can’t quite decide what kind of weird it wants to be: a loopy B-movie corkscrew ride, or an “American Beauty”-style suburban burlesque with Something To Say.
Though it’ll find most of its viewers on VOD, Athale’s film receives a limited Stateside theatrical release this week, two months after a low-key world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That’s a surprisingly quiet trajectory for an American-British co-production high on surface polish, with a classy ensemble that includes Amy Ryan, Nick Robinson, Greg Kinnear, Blythe Danner and Brian Cox — none of whom, it has to be said, challenges Qualley for the illustrious title of “best thing here.” Perhaps “Repo Men” writer Eric Garcia’s script, adapted from John Searles’ well-regarded 2004 novel, had more depth on the page. On screen, it strikes false notes from the first beat, as protagonist Philip (Robinson) murmurs the first of many vague profundities in voiceover: “If we knew the whole truth, would we be less afraid… or more?”
Recuperating at his family home following an injury, young photographer Philip lives in a permanent state of snippy discord with his recently divorced mother Charlene — acidly played by Ryan, who appears to have been given few notes besides, “Yes, but can we make her more embittered?” At the root of the familial breakdown is the accidental death of Philip’s younger brother Ronnie (Connor Jessup) half a decade previously; unsurprisingly, when Ronnie’s beatific former girlfriend Melissa (Qualley) turns up on the doorstep with the news that Ronnie is her beyond-the-grave baby daddy, Charlene is less than receptive to the idea.
Philip, equally incredulous but more sympathetic to her obvious sincerity, sets out to find out what her deal is — while Charlene, a former librarian, proceeds to spend hours on the internet looking up alternative pregnancy theories. (Oddly, despite her mortification over the whole crisis, she heads to the library to do this: In this and other ways, the film appears to be set simultaneously in 2019 and 1988. Strange… but true?) Garcia and Athale keep the slender but nagging possibility of supernatural mischief afloat for much of the running time, even as Philip’s amateur detective work pulls at variously connected earthly threads, bringing his absent father (Kinnear) and Melissa’s kindly mom-and-pop caretakers (Danner and Cox) into the mystery.
Appealing as ever, “Love, Simon” star Robinson doesn’t quite have the dark quizzicality to fully carry this exercise in suburban underbelly-creeping — not that the film, which plants major dramatic jolts without the accompanying character work to make them truly upsetting, gives him an awful lot to play. Much of “Strange But True” unfolds at the temperature and tempo of higher-end network television, heavy on hooky, schematic contrivance, but not so lurid as to push any boundaries. The film’s smooth craft contributions, led by Stuart Bentley’s conventionally shadowy but lacquered lensing, create much the same vibe — save for a berserk climax of overwrought crosscutting in which birth, death and everything in between clash with such dialed-to-eleven irony that even Qualley can’t sell it. No film should reach that point.