Meadowland full movie review - Cinematographer turned first-time director invokes heady atmosphere in tale of Etan Patz-like case, despite uneven script
"Meadowland" is a film by first-time director Reed Morano, a cinematographer by trade, responsible in part for such notable indies as "Frozen River.
" Morano has fashioned a deeply atmospheric tale from a screenplay by first time feature writer, Chris Rossi, chronicling the downward spiral of a husband and wife whose child is kidnapped by a pedophile (similar to the true-life Etan Patz case).
The story begins in a harrowing scene where the couple stops at a gas station in upstate New York with their young son in the back seat. The kid goes to the bathroom and doesn't come out?when the father opens the door, he discovers his son has vanished. We then flash forward a year later and the child is still missing and the parents, Sarah and Phil (played most intensely and convincingly by Oliva Wilde and Luke Wilson), are coping from the fallout of the overwhelming tragedy in their lives.
The great strength of the film (and perhaps also its greatest weakness), is that the focus is on the internal arcs of the principals (as opposed to the conflict between the two). When we first meet Sarah, an elementary school teacher, she's on lithium and has convinced herself that her son is still alive. Phil, a NYC police officer, castigates his wife for denying reality (as it's becoming more apparent, due to a police investigation of a pedophile under surveillance upstate who may be implicated in the abduction, that the little boy is never coming home).
In one of the strongest scenes in the film, Sarah goes looking for an animal cracker that her son was eating on the day he disappeared, and finds it wedged in a crack in the back seat of their car. Attempting to reconnect with her son in any way, she ravenously wolfs the cracker down, satiating herself for a moment despite the grief that never goes away.
The plot eventually focuses on Sarah's obsession with Adam, a young student at her school, who has Asperger's Syndrome. The child is treated poorly by her foster parents?Sarah follows the mother in one scene and helps her out with money after she's unable to pay for groceries at a convenience store. I'm not exactly sure where that plot strand was leading?later on, after throwing out her medications, Sarah has a manic episode where she ends up having sex with the boy's father (again I suppose, indicative of her downward spiral).
Meanwhile Phil appears at first to getting himself together by attending a support group for parents of murdered children. But like Sarah, he is not immune to the deleterious effects of the tragedy that has impinged upon his life. In a subtle scene, he kicks over a roadside memorial to a deceased father?his way of "coping" is lashing out (as opposed to Sarah's self-destructiveness). Later Phil inappropriately provides one of his fellow support group members with the address of the drunken driver who killed his daughter. It's obvious that Phil has lost his moral compass despite the fact that he's supposed to uphold the law as a law enforcement officer (a public servant).
Morano's camera work as well as her direction prove that she's an extremely talented filmmaker to be reckoned with in the future. Meadowland's problem is Rossi's uneven script which lacks a great deal of conflict and rising tension. Instead, the focus is on just how low these characters can sink as they cope with the immediate reality of their missing child. Little is added by a subplot involving a visit by Phil's unstable brother Tim, who Sarah and Phil put up in their apartment, while he is attempting to get his life together.
I won't reveal the ending entirely but suffice it to say there is a measure of redemption for Sarah involving an elephant, a class of mammal that Adam, the young Asperger's child, has shown great affection for earlier on (Sarah's self-obsession at the denouement with her concomitant lack of attention to Adam, remains a disturbing scene). Phil perhaps gains his measure of redemption when the police investigation into their child's disappearance, is resolved.
Meadowland is primarily recommended for the intense, tragic atmosphere it invokes. The lack of a true, discernible plot and focus exclusively on the principals' internal arcs, are its Achilles heels.