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Asleep in My Palm

Society often ignores those living on its fringes. Thankfully, there are cinematic works like Henry Nelson’s sensitive and perceptive feature debut “Asleep in My Palm” to delicately give them their due visibility. Patiently paced despite running at a compact 89 minutes and full of observant details inside the off-the-grid lives of a father and daughter, Nelson’s humanistic drama is as much about barely scraping by in today’s lonesome and unforgiving world, as it is about the unique bonds between a dad and his teenage offspring in their very own DIY universe.

The dad, Tom, is played by the writer-director’s own father Tim Blake Nelson (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) with a reserved sense of gravity and the earned wisdom of a toughened someone who has elected not to play by society’s rules. His daughter, Beth Anne, is portrayed by Chloë Kerwin in a wonderful feature debut (prior to her “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” turn) that splits the difference between her teenaged character’s wide-eyed curiosity and hard-earned maturity that she’s slowly and reluctantly settling into. The duo secretly lives inside a storage unit by a liberal arts college in Ohio (possibly Oberlin), with a space they have packed with modest furniture and trinkets they have supplied (well, stolen) here and there. For bathroom needs, they frequent the local McDonald’s and a corner deli with a kindly owner. For a hot shower, they have their proven technique to break into the college dorms. They don’t have modern conveniences, but Tom always seems to have a plan to make it work.

Harnessing an off-kilter sense of humor, “Asleep in My Palm” is at its best when Nelson astutely shadows Tom and Beth Anne’s routines through a caring lens across stories Tom tells Beth Anne like she’s a toddler (and frequently uses profanity like she’s his drinking buddy) and all the freewheeling time they spend in the chilly campus environs. In an especially sharp sequence, filmed and edited with the directorial finesse of someone far more experienced, Nelson follows Tom as he spends an entire night stealing bikes from around the campus, and collecting them in a safe spot until his eventual buyer shows up in the morning. The customer is the motormouth smalltime fixer Jose, played agilely by a loose-limbed and terrific Jared Abrahamson who contrasts Tom’s brainy severity with an off-the-cuff sort of quality.

We know from the likes of Debra Granik’s (admittedly far superior) “Leave No Trace” that no off-the-grid existence can remain as such, especially when the life, hungers and curiosities of a teenage girl continue to expand and grow. In Beth Anne’s case, an artsy, privileged and pseudo-Satanist student collective serves as a gateway to such pastures, briefly introducing her to their leader Dark Mortius (a charismatic Grant Harvey) and an enigmatic student in their ranks, Gus Birney’s alluring Millah. It ends up being Millah who awakens the smitten Beth Anne’s sexual appetite through a stolen kiss. And with that newfound desire and confidence, Beth Anne starts wondering what possibilities might be beyond their hidden life, ones that are always going to be out of reach to her.

Through Tatajana Krstevski’s compassionate cinematography that unearths the landscape’s chill and engages with the textures of the forgotten, derelict buildings Tom and Beth Anne frequent, “Asleep in My Palm” asserts a lyrical tone that is neither oversentimental nor aloof. Often, you find yourself immersed in the humble world that Nelson has conjured up in the film’s more ordinary moments.

Less convincing is the story’s final-act turn when we learn a lot more about Tom’s troubling origins in a twist that feels both harrowing and unfortunately undercooked. Not that the film owes its viewers a tidy resolution (it doesn’t), but it’s nonetheless disappointing that whatever Beth Anne feels for Millah goes underexplored and the story’s conclusion feels more invested in shocking the audience in a disposition that goes against the film’s mild temperament elsewhere. Still, Nelson pulls off something strangely lovely and generous on the whole, a clear-eyed film with something to say on the kinds of lives many would rather not talk about.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to RogerEbert.com, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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