Sarah Paulson is either the world’s best mother or the worst in “Run,” a deranged (in a good way) two-hander from “Searching” director Aneesh Chaganty that piles one tragedy upon another and serves it up in the form of a thriller.
The first of these injustices is revealed in the opening scene: Paulson plays expectant mother Diane Sherman, whose only child is delivered prematurely, taken from her and hooked up to machines in a long-shot hope for its survival. The second emerges only gradually almost 17 years later, as Diane’s college-bound daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen) — who’s dealt with diabetes, asthma and lower-body paralysis for as long as she can remember — starts to question whether her life could have gone a very different way.
Short answer: Yes. But Chloe is hardly prepared for the degree to which her reality has been meticulously constructed by Diane. And the film’s title, “Run,” suggests just how difficult escape will be for a young woman who, by design more than disability, has been confined to a wheelchair for the better part of her life. Like Stephen King’s “Misery,” the movie turns too much attention into a very uncomfortable thing, suggesting that “overprotective” can be a synonym for abuse.
“Chloe’s the most capable person I know,” Diane tells a group of fellow homeschoolers early on, and actor Allen (a wheelchair user in real life) bears that out in the role: Chloe lives an isolated existence, cut off from virtually all social interaction, but she’s bright and resourceful, as evidenced by the almost-operational robotics project she’s been building in her upstairs bedroom. To get downstairs, she relies on an automated lift, but in most other respects, Chloe can manage on her own. She is very nearly independent, and that’s something Diane clearly isn’t ready to accept. The same goes for Chloe’s college hopes, and the first clue audiences get that something’s not right is the hint that Diane might be intercepting the mail.
Certainly, there’s a lot more to her parenting than meets the eye, and Chaganty has some pretty good surprises up his sleeve — so stop reading now if you’re sensitive to spoilers. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that “Run” is the latest in a string of film and TV projects (e.g., “Sharp Objects” and “The Act”) dealing with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a condition by which a parent or guardian gets off on someone else’s disability, inventing ailments in others so that they might play the caregiver.
In Diane’s case, what she views as mother’s love relies on an elaborate deception, and Chloe finally starts to question the circumstances she takes for granted — confinement that amounts to a kind of house arrest and a daily dose of pills that may in fact be prolonging her condition — when she discovers a bottle of medicine in her mother’s grocery bag. It’s rare that Diane leaves anything unattended, and yet, Chloe’s snooping suggests that she’s probably been having doubts for some time. But how to investigate them when her mom seems to be monitoring everything, from her phone and internet use to the duration of her bathroom breaks? (In one of the film’s tensest scenes, she sneaks out of a movie, crosses to the pharmacy and demands to know what the new pills are. The answer is so much worse than she imagined.)
Arriving just two months after “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” spinoff “Ratched” on Netflix, “Run” seems almost subtle by comparison. It’s not subtle, mind you, but in the scheme of campy Paulson performances, this one registers as more nuanced, allowing Chaganty to get away with maintaining the mystery for longer. Instead of casting knowing looks that indicate her character’s true motives, Paulson assumes a poker face. What she’s doing is evil, and yet, like a great many real-world villains, she has managed to justify it to herself, which is perhaps the scariest aspect of all.
Whereas Chaganty’s “Searching” — which was told entirely through computer screens — kept audiences guessing till the very end, “Run” switches gears to a fairly routine thriller once the ruse is up. The family lives in a tiny town where everyone thinks of Diane as a super-mom, so Chloe’s options are limited in terms of where she can turn for help (and audiences don’t yet know how far Diane will go to maintain her control over her daughter). But of course, the biggest obstacle is Chloe’s handicap, which limits her mobility and leads to a number of unique sequences in which the character — and the performer playing her — maneuver with limited use of her legs.
It’s still fairly uncommon for Hollywood movies to include characters who use wheelchairs, and even rarer still for directors to cast actors with disabilities in those parts. How far things have come since “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the cliché of the helpless invalid at the mercy of her caregiver! And yet, the representation conversation is evolving so fast that one can imagine “Run” rubbing certain audiences the wrong way, whether today or in a few years, when the rules for who can play which roles have changed again.
Kiera Allen, who plays Chloe, represents a genuine discovery: funny, charismatic and in many ways more relatable than the Clearasil-commercial models who populate most teen flicks — which represents a second agenda, beyond mere authenticity. Between this and “Searching” (with its Asian American leads), Chaganty is actively expanding audiences’ ideas of what movie heroes can be. In the end, the character’s disability feels like an extension of the approach taken in his debut. Once again, perceived limitations become opportunities for more creative solutions, and differences disappear unless audiences decide to obsess over them.