Runner | 2022 Toronto International Airport Film Festival Review

Making Room: Mathias unveils the fleeting moments of a relationship in an elegant beginning

Amid the unforgiving, barren landscape of a Midwestern winter, delicate tendrils of human connection take hold Marianne Mathias‘ first elegiac feature film runner. In a modest and spartan setting, the filmmaker unfolds the story of two young people on the verge of adulthood, whose unexpected encounter sparkles like lightning on the horizon, and fades like an old photograph whose memory endures as long as the story is not forgotten.

An image that prioritizes atmosphere over narrative, the film is set sometime after World War II, against the bruised autumn skies of the American Midwest. Living in a rural community in Missouri, eighteen-year-old Haas (Hannah Schiller) keeps the house and watches over his single father Alvin (Jonathan Eisley), a man whose bad reputation, untreated mental illness and veil of grief have made them social exiles. She discovers the true depth of the problems he endured when, after Alvin’s unexpected death, she learns that his debt was so large, that their house is on the verge of foreclosure, while the real estate opportunity he desperately trying to offer investors was probably a prepared scam.

As much out of loyalty as obligation, Haas fulfilled his father’s last request, accompanying his body to Illinois for burial. Trading one piece of barren countryside for another, Haas settles in a modest inn after the weather turns bad and delays the burial for a few days. While waiting for her father’s grave to be prepared, she meets Will (Darren Houle) who, like Hass, is also passing through and weighed down by a painful past.

Between friendship and budding relationship, Mathias traces their fragile bond through a series of incidents and tender and calm conversations. From bike rides to leisurely strolls through frosty fields, the barriers they each erected to the world thaw, as they both comfort each other in the reprieve of the rest of their lives that is complicated and uncertain. They even find a song of their own, “I Saw The Light” by Hank Williams. Will explains that he enjoys listening to the song in times when he “…goes from being sad to happy”. It’s the closest thing they have to articulating what they mean to each other.

While Mathias uses the square 1.44:1 aspect ratio, cinematographer Jomo Fray makes it beautifully spacious. Working with a deep regard for composition, the film’s imagery often seems painterly, evoking the melancholy air of the work of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. The characters are often on the edges of the frame or filmed in medium and wide shots, enveloping them in an immensity that is both magnificent and totally solitary. Mathais further emphasizes the isolation of Haas and Will by keeping anything resembling civilization off-camera. The only hint of the larger world outside comes from Haas’ train ride to Illinois, but even so, her destination being so far away, there’s little in the car with her.

Unfolding with a slight autonomy of 76 minutes, Mathias’ runner makes the most of this brevity, keeping only its most essential elements in the frame. Every bit of minimal dialogue, every beat in the score of rising composer Para One (regular collaborator of Céline Sciamma; and 2022’s rage girl), every low-ceilinged tavern and vast tract of farmland is invisibly integrated into a cumulative portrait of unity forged under the most unlikely of circumstances. What Haas and Will are building together in a short time seems miraculous, like catching the strains of your favorite country song late at night on the FM dial, as a voice from a distant place sings, “I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night / Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.

Reviewed September 11 at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery. 76 mins.