Zoe Kazan Elevates “The Kindness Of Strangers”

How much weight do you put into a strong performance within a film that has its fair share of issues? Can a single turn lift up an entire project? Honestly, it really depends on the movie and the acting turn in question. Sometimes, it can be enough to warrant a recommendation, while at other times, it still falls a little bit short. In the case of this week’s new release The Kindness of Strangers, we’re faced with a similar situation. The flick is a mixed bag, though its ensemble cast is led by a wonderful performance by Zoe Kazan. In the end, she does manage to drag this one across the finish line, generating enough goodwill for a mild recommendation.

The movie is a drama that takes its title largely literally. The lynchpin is Clara (Kazan), an abused wife who packs up her two sons Anthony (Jack Fulton) and Jude (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) in the middle of the night and escapes her cop husband Richard (Esben Smed Jensen), driving down to New York City from Buffalo. There, they struggle to survive, while keeping under the radar of the police, for fear of being discovered by Richard. As Clara attempts to provide for her boys, she encounters Marc (Tahar Rahim), a restaurant manager who seeks to help her. His assistance puts her into contact with charity worker Alice (Andrea Riseborough), as well as attorney John Peter (Jay Baruchel). Of course, Richard looms in the background, but as Clara fights to give her family a better life, many of these characters move in and out of Marc’s restaurant, which is run by Timofey (Bill Nighy). Of course, by the end, it all comes together. Lone Scherfig writes and directs, while Sebastian Blenkov provides the cinematography. Andrew Lockington handles the score. Rounding out the main ensemble is Caleb Landry Jones.

At this point, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Zoe Kazan shines here. She’s easily one of the industry’s most underrated actresses, so she dives headfirst into this very dramatic part. Kazan is able to really sell the little changes that Clara needs to make as she navigates New York City. Whether it’s begging at a shelter to be able to shower or working the room at a high society function in order to pilfer some hors d’oeuvre so her children can eat, Kazan beautifully demonstrates her character’s determination. If the rest of the flick was on her level, we’d be talking about a special work. Of course, it’s not, so we’re just left with her performance, but it’s a hell of a job by Kazan, one worth heavily praising.

The Kindness of Strangers sinks like a stone whenever it moves away from Kazan’s plot thread. Clara is the character we care about, so when anyone else gets filmmaker Lone Scherfig’s focus, the endeavor suffers. The worst example is Caleb Landry Jones’ Jeff, who really serves no purpose. It’s hard to see why Scherfig decided to make this an ensemble, as opposed to just focusing on Kazan’s character. Tahar Rahim and Andrea Riseborough come the closest to having viable characters, but they work best as interesting supporting players, as opposed to sometimes being at co-lead status. Scherfig’s direction is solid, so it’s really just a failing on the screenplay level.

Starting tomorrow, audiences in the mood for something incredibly earnest may want to give a look to The Kindness of Strangers. The main (and really only) reason to see this is the performance being given by Zoe Kazan. Lone Scherfig hasn’t been able to match the heights of her breakout movie An Education, and this doesn’t come close to that, but Kazan is doing such great work that it papers over some of the issues. In the end, you just have to trust that Kazan’s turn makes it all worthwhile. If you can go along for that ride, you’ll see her do some of the year’s best work, albeit surrounded by a film that doesn’t always demonstrate that it deserves her.

Be sure to check out The Kindness of Strangers, in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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