Amy Ryan leads a cast of familiar faces in Strange But True, a thriller that revels in taking viewers on escalating twists and turns which ultimately reach a level of outlandish Lifetime-style camp. Rowan Athale directs Eric Garcia’s adaptation of John Searles’ novel which never comes across quite a seriously as the creative team seem to have intended.
Pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) turns up at Charlene’s (Amy Ryan) door claiming to be carrying the baby of her five year deceased son. Still grieving, Charlene’s relationship with her surviving son Philip (Nick Robinson) and ex-husband (Greg Kinnear) is fragile at best and this is put under further strain by the bizarre arrival of Melissa.
Athale and screenwriter Garcia construct Strange But True in a manner that drip-feeds us key plot points throughout, teasing the potential mysteries at the heart of the narrative. Opening with a snapshot of the film’s conclusion – a crutch-laden Robinson running through the woods – and then scaling back to the opening, is a nice way to hook-us in, whilst flashbacks to the build-up to Ronnie’s death are engaging, albeit emotionally heavy-handed. The idea of a phantom pregnancy is a campy way to drive the narrative and there is some enjoyment in attempting to disprove this as Garcia reveals more of the narrative secrets.
Strange But True is a somewhat clumsy affair which adds to the Lifetime style campiness that plagues or enhances it (depending on your personal taste) . Characters are bluntly crafted – Amy Ryan’s fiery and bitter grieving matriarch, Robinson’s snarky inquisitive teen brother, Kinnear’s suspect ex-husband character, and Blythe Danner and Brian Cox as the kindly older couple supporting doe-eyed Melissa. These caricatures placed in escalating circumstances – Ryan frantically researching freezing sperm, Kinnear and his Real Housewife style second-wife, and Danner and Cox’s odd dynamic – gives this thriller a highly campy quality that can be quite fun.
Setting the narrative in small-town suburban USA only furthers the saccharine camp Lifetime style of Strange But True – yet Athale injects excitement into this arena and provides some sense of scale on a modest budget. There’s a well-crafted sense of tension and mystery powering through this thriller, mostly carried by a solid performance from Ryan and Athale’s workmanlike direction. There’s atmosphere channelled into these familiar suburban locales from rural farms to family homes – adding a sense of unease to the otherwise mundane.
There is fun to be had in the heavy-handed twists and turns of Strange But True. It’s competently crafted and powered by a highly watchable performance from Ryan. It does lack subtlety and finesse, but does an efficient job engaging in its punchy ninety minute runtime.