This year has been very good for the kinds of films that I’m naturally drawn to, films without much flash or special effects, but with real, authentic stories about this flawed human experiment we’re all trying to survive. Among my favorites of 2023 is Nicole Holofcener’s film. You hurt my feelings about the little insults and lies we tell even those we love the most; Appearance, Kelly Reichardt’s all-too-understandable look at the suffering of our art, even if it’s the suffering we’ve made up in our heads; and, of course, incredibly powerful We are all strangers, Andrew Hay’s meditation on loss, grief and finding your way through it all. Add Michael Franco to this list of accomplishments. Memoryabout a man and woman facing a midlife crisis whose worlds intersect in ways neither could have expected.
Starring Jessica Chastain as Sylvia and Peter Sarsgaard as Saul. Memory you slowly introduce us to its characters. The first is the single mother of Anna (Brooke Timber), a teenager who struggles to understand that the structure and rules Sylvia enforces in their lives are for their own good. Sylvia always wants to know her daughter’s whereabouts; their New York City apartment has an additional security system. Sylvia, a social worker for adults with developmental delays, is a soft-spoken person, but it’s obvious she’s wary. She reluctantly agrees to go to a high school reunion with her more outgoing (and socially adept) sister Olivia (the great Merritt Wever), where she sits quietly at the table while Olivia catches up with former classmates.
Sol is also present at the meeting, looking a little confused and lost in his surroundings. He silently follows Sylvia home after the event, inexplicably spending the night in the rain outside her house, where she finds him when she leaves for work the next morning. Thus begins a strange and multi-layered connection between Sylvia and Saul that will cause unresolved trauma in both of them, as well as send ripples through their immediate families. After this morning’s meeting, Sylvia becomes more and more involved in Saul’s life as his primary caregivers, his brother Isaac (Josh Charles) and teenage niece Sarah (Elsie Fisher), ask her to come and care for him at home. on an ongoing basis. After much thought, Sylvia agrees. If the first half Memory a mystery that slowly reveals past experiences and connections, the second half becomes a journey of discovery as Sylvia and Saul, both suffering from early onset dementia, allow each other to be their completely vulnerable selves.
Franco creates a multi-generational world here as we learn that Silvia and Olivia are also mending their relationship with their emotionally distant mother, and Anna soon becomes embroiled in this dynamic while trying to mend her own relationship with a grandmother she barely knows . . . It all serves to create a deeply interesting narrative as Sylvia tries to keep multiple emotional, personal and professional plates spinning simultaneously, something anyone “doing work” today can empathize with. Chastain’s performance is restrained when necessary (Sylvia has learned to keep what she’s going through inside secret) but is most often heartbreakingly vulnerable, especially when Saul’s sensitivity and presence begin to chip away at her defenses.
Sarsgaard approaches Saul, a man who can’t control much in his life, not even his own mind, with the tenderness he so skillfully displays so often on screen. A relatively young man faced with these types of neurological problems, most of the time he deals with his frustrations and confusion with surprising (and commendable) patience. The chemistry between these two broken souls, as fragile and uncertain as it may seem, is nonetheless real and obvious to those of us watching.
MemoryLike many of his films, it does well what I believe cinema does best: introducing audiences to the lived experiences of those involved. Franco’s relationship drama, centered on standout performances from Chastain and Sarsgaard, evokes empathy and acceptance, a reminder that no matter how flawed we are (or will become), we are worthy of love and connection wherever it’s offered.
Memory is now playing in cinemas.
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