“Only just connect” are the words that would most aptly end “The Kindness of Strangers” if it were an E.M. Forster novel — even if that prospect is about as hard to swallow as, well, just about anything that happens in Lone Scherfig’s strange, sticky mélange of social realism, Dickensian sentiment and straight-up romantic fairy tale. Awkwardly twirling parboiled spaghetti strands of narrative around Zoe Kazan’s modern-day Little Match Girl — a pure-hearted mother of two escaping her abusive husband to live rough in Manhattan — this über-earnest Berlinale opener is given some commercial lift by classy ensemble casting and the malted directorial polish we’ve come to expect from the helmer behind “An Education” and “Their Finest.” But even Kazan’s stalwart commitment to the material can’t resolve the clash of grit and whimsy in Scherfig’s schizo moral fable.
“Can’t you just be kind?” pleads one character toward the end of the film, worn to the nub as she is by the cynicism and looking-out-for-number-one savvy that comes naturally to so many New Yorkers. As well as underlining the film’s essential message in thick Magic Marker strokes, the outburst feels like a gentle tease to Scherfig’s own critics: Far from her austere Dogme 95 beginnings, the Dane’s best work benefits from her warm formal classicism and essentially hopeful human outlook, even if those virtues have never made her the most fashionable of filmmakers. Her first film as a solo writer-director since the winsome 2000 crowd-pleaser “Italian for Beginners,” “The Kindness of Strangers” practically plays as her latter-day spin on Capra-corn — call it Scherfig-schmaltz — right down to the suspended reality of its setting: a declawed, snow-flecked New York City where the same half-dozen lost souls keep bumping into each other at every turn.
Small wonder, then, that truly desperate housewife Clara (Kazan) chooses this oddly cozy metropolis as her destination when she flees the terrors of suburban Buffalo at the film’s outset, with her young sons Anthony (Jack Fulton) and Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) in tow. If the film’s Big Apple lacks authentic bite, there are some practical reasons for that: Toronto and Copenhagen both fill in for the city in stretches of this Danish-Canadian-Swedish-French-German co-production. More sorely felt, however, is the absence of a flavorful idiom in Scherfig’s original screenplay; while the writing makes a point of its ensemble’s ragtag collection of backgrounds and identities, as befits its melting-pot locale, it’s hard to escape the sense that their collected stories could be unfolding absolutely anywhere.
Haltingly, Clara’s plight becomes clear. Her violent policeman husband Richard (Esben Smed) has been beating both her and the boys, leading her to conclude they’re safer on the streets than in the home; with no family to turn to, and the local cops all on Richard’s side, they resort to depending on — well, you’ve seen the title. Among the kindly folks whose paths cross theirs are Alice (Andrea Riseborough), a lonely do-gooder nurse whose side projects include running a soup kitchen and chairing a therapy group predicated, rather vaguely, on the principle of forgiveness. Its most reluctant member is Marc (Tahar Rahim), an upstanding ex-con rebuilding his life by managing a quirky Russian restaurant for quirkier proprietor Timofey (Bill Nighy). Flitting in and out of proceedings are Marc’s lovelorn pro bono lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel) and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), a bumbling ne’er-do-well whose chain of lost jobs finally leads him to volunteering at the soup kitchen.
Will these variously disheveled but generally attractive misfits find they all have something to offer each other? Will love bloom in the unforgiving urban freeze like an early crocus bud in the sidewalk cracks? Will Bill Nighy offer up a slightly accented variation on his lovably dilapidated cad act? The gradually aligned mini-narratives of Scherfig’s schematic script may proceed much as you’d expect, but that’s not to say they make a whole lot of sense: Too much of the kindness in “Strangers” feels sentimentally story-dictated rather than born of profound human observation, leaving you with mild, woolly good feeling but little to contemplate or chew on. No amount of good feeling, meanwhile, can excuse the truly bizarre storytelling whiff of the third act, in which a critical segue into courtroom drama — the bruising climax of Clara’s crisis — is fudged in a hasty, dialogue-free montage.
Riseborough’s Alice, effectively written as the film’s binding milk of benevolence, is too blandly limpid a character to conduct the complementary sob stories that pass through her with much credibility; you can feel the actress, a specialist in more conflicted, secretive portraits, straining to complicate the writing a little. Indeed, the cast do what they can across the board — even Rahim, looking least comfortable with his stock part of the damaged-but-soulful dreamboat. It’s their combined, charismatic efforts that make “The Kindness of Strangers,” even at its phoniest and most puddingy, a pretty, painless distraction. (Sebastian Blenkov’s elegantly frosted lensing and Andrew Lockington’s over-egged but ornately violin-lashed score do their own bit in that regard.)
That Kazan manages to extract palpably wounded emotional truth from a panicked pixie dreamgirl character whose decisions don’t always bear closest scrutiny is a testament to her gifts. Cannily cast in a project that makes full poignant use of her open, silent-film-heroine features, she’s an actress who can reliably be counted on to bring honest, unpredictable shading even to the most slightly conceived roles. “The Kindness of Strangers” isn’t quite the leading showcase she deserves, but it inspires a whole charity store’s worth of goodwill toward her.