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Writer/director Rebecca Miller somehow manages to make heightened characters feel authentic in “She Came to Me,” continuing to show her increasing comfort with warmth and humor. The set-up could work as farce or tragedy, but improbably, she keeps it lightly balanced between those extremes. "She Came to Me" is beautifully performed and directed with great charm, unexpected wisdom, and sweetness.
Just don’t expect it to be predictable. Some people may be uncomfortable because it does not fit into any established tone or direction. But for many, that will be a bonus. In Miller’s previous film, “Maggie’s Plan,” Greta Gerwig played a warm-hearted, idealistic young woman who falls in love with her older, pretentious, married literature professor and then decides to get him back together with his ex-wife. Here, Miller again gives us some characters who are pretentious about art, needy, drawn by the idea of love, but not very good about thinking through the realities of a day-to-day relationship. The characters try to control the world around them, and sometimes, the people around them are destined to fail. Tellingly, the film opens with the famous aria from Carmen that translates to “Love is a rebellious bird.”
Peter Dinklage is brilliant as Steven, imperious and vulnerable. He is a once-successful opera composer struggling with a massive writer’s block as his deadline looms and his librettist quits in frustration. Steven is married to Patricia (Anne Hathaway), a therapist whose favorite activity is intensive house cleaning and who likes to imagine, in sessions with patients, scrubbing out the mistaken thinking from their brains. She dresses in simple, severe black and white and seems endlessly patient but more therapeutic than affectionate. In one brief scene, Patricia is cleaning the kitchen with a dust buster, about to turn it off, when Steven walks in, indicating that he is receiving inspiration from its B-flat hum, and she keeps it going until he indicates, like a conductor, that the piece is over. Patricia does lose her temper when Steven’s shoes get the comforter dirty. Patricia’s teenage son from her first marriage is Julian (Evan Ellison), a gifted student specializing in STEM solutions for reducing climate change.
Another family of three is one of several mirror reflections in the film. Joanna Kulig plays Magdalena, an undocumented immigrant who works as a cleaning woman for Patricia and Steven. She is not married to her domestic partner, Trey (Brian d'Arcy James), but he has legally adopted her teenage daughter, Tereza (Harlow Jane), and considers himself her father. Trey is a blowhard, a Civil War re-enactor who is meticulous about historical accuracy. He's extremely proud of his skill as a court reporter and of the expertise in the law he has gained in years of transcribing trials. Tereza is also gifted in STEM. She and Julian have created a “futurist” science presentation together. They are looking forward to possibilities while Trey is immersed in re-creating the details of the past.
Both teenagers live with substitute fathers. Before they know of the connection between their children, Patricia and Magdalena realize that both resulted from unplanned pregnancies. Patricia did not let it disrupt her medical training. She laughs, “I just did not sleep for three years.” Magdalena was not so fortunate. She adores her daughter but has deep-seated regrets over being unable to pursue her dreams. That has made her even more focused on ensuring that Tereza is not distracted from her professional goals. And then, in cleaning Julian’s room, Magdalena discovers photographs showing that he and Tereza are intimate, and it ignites her worst fears that her daughter may end up as she has.
Patricia, losing her patience with Steven, urges him to take their dog for a walk to clear his head and find inspiration. At a dive bar, he meets Katrina (Marisa Tomei), a tugboat captain dressed in earthy, warm colors in contrast to Patricia’s black and white. She takes him to see her boat and confides that she has a problem with romantic obsession. Somehow, this does not dissuade him from having sex with her, and somehow, that inspires him to create an opera about a homicidal tugboat captain. And somehow, the opera is a triumph.
When a conflict involving Julian and Tereza arises, the loyalties among the adults shift and clarify. Miller allows some operatic exaggeration for the older characters, but her respect for the teenagers gives the film a buoyant optimism that allows for the pleasures of messiness and simplicity, skepticism and hope, being honest about what you need, and, when nothing else will work, trying something crazy.
Now playing in theaters.
Peter Dinklage as Steven Lauddem
Marisa Tomei as Katrina
Anne Hathaway as Patricia
Brian d'Arcy James as Trey
Joanna Kulig as Magdalena
Harlow Jane as Tereza
Jen Ponton as Elodie
Aalok Mehta as Anton
Samuel H. Levine as Raef Gundel