Alan GilsenanCanada / Ireland93 minutes2016ColourEnglish
Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener and Hannah Gross (I Used to Be Darker) star in this adaptation of the final novel by the late, great Canadian novelist Carol Shields, about a writer who discovers her runaway daughter panhandling on the street and seemingly deprived of speech.
Alan Gilsenan's adaptation of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Carol Shields' final novel is that rarest of things: a powerful, accessible work of cinema that ardently explores the extraordinary experience of ordinary women. Shot in Toronto and starring Oscar nominee Catherine Keener in one of her most emotionally rich roles, Unless tells the story of a mother's struggle to reach a child who seems all but lost to her.
An accomplished writer and translator, Reta Winters (Keener) is blindsided and flummoxed by the recent actions of her eldest daughter, Norah (Hannah Gross). For no discernible reason, Norah has dropped out of university and now spends her days panhandling on the sidewalk outside of Toronto landmark Honest Ed's. The cardboard sign she affixes to her chest features only one word: GOODNESS. Reta fears losing her connection to her daughter, but is it possible Norah is seeking some way of reconnecting to the world?
Over the course of Unless we come to understand the complex emotional histories of Reta and Norah. The former is a middle-aged woman for whom language is the key to comprehending life, the latter a young woman who has lost her faith in the ability of language, the academy, and society in general to imbue her life with meaning.
Keener is both devastating and radiant, while Gross (I Used To Be Darker) valiantly immerses herself in Norah's wild agitation — this is a breakout turn from a fiercely talented young actor. Reta and Norah's differences emphasize the idea that these women are actually two sides of the same coin, with opposing responses to a world in which it is hard for a woman to find her rightful place.