Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are an unmarried couple living in Los Angeles who seem to have it all: a newborn baby, a house. But it’s all too much for Adrienne, who struggles to keep up and doubts her relationship: “I’m dragging through the motions of our life,” she says.
So begins Wander Darkly, written and directed by Tara Miele, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Yet this is no ordinary story of relationship doubt. What begins as a growing seed of discontent and uncertainty about the future bursts in an instant when the couple gets into a sudden, traumatic car crash.
This is where the surrealistic thrills begin, as Adrienne is left unsure whether she is dead or alive after the accident. She wanders around blood-covered and battered, observing her own body in the hospital and attending her own funeral. Death or life, hallucination or reality, this story wanders dream-like through uncertainty, carrying us through a jumbled and disjointed series of memories and images as Adrienne tries to determine her metaphysical conditions. She jumps ahead to see her daughter’s future as raised by her grandparents, but then also moves into memories with Matteo, watching dolphins or sharing embraces.
There are inconsistencies in how Adrienne interacts with the world, as she is occasionally an observer of moments or memories and, at other times, an active participant in the flashbacks. Sometimes, her loved ones are unable to see or hear her. But other times, they are — such as when Matteo tries to convince her that she is not dead. “Wandering” is the best way to describe the dazed — and often confused — plot, which does not always follow any decipherable logic.
Because we keep seeing Adrienne wandering in a daze, approaching each sight with shock and confusion, the film could easily slip into melodramatic territory, especially when accompanied by its melancholy score of searing strings or piano melodies. Yet Miller is magnetic as this tortured soul, approaching her situation with both humor — she wants her funeral to be “fun” and feature Missy Elliot — and deep anguish. Miller and Luna have charisma and chemistry even as they bicker, and the rapport between their characters helps carry us through even the more cliched plot moments, from psychic readings to weddings.
Although parts of the dialogue in which characters discuss death or the purpose of existence can also fall somewhat flat, the look and feel of the film help pull the audience in. Director of photography Carolina Costa makes affecting use of closeups and shadowy shots to amplify the intimacy between the couple. Miele has said that Adrienne’s struggle to figure out whether she is alive or dead is based on her own harrowing experience of surviving a car crash with her husband, and the genuine emotion in this love story is palpable in every frame. It can be a bit clunky when the story tries to explore psychological thriller territory, but the film is most affecting in its quieter moments of love and loss shared between the couple.
Whether they have a future together or not — or whether they are even alive — what is certain about Adrienne and Matteo is that they care for each other and have something worth fighting for. Wander Darkly can, at times, be a punishing trauma drama following Adrienne’s fumbles through purgatory, but as a fragmented and twisting story about a couple that shows us all the little pieces of happiness, sadness, anger, and love that form their realistic relationship, it sees the light.