SLAMDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! It’s much easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own, and it’s much easier to take care of someone else than to take care of yourself. This is why so many people are such experts on global politics, yet can’t seem to figure out how to lose ten pounds or make a vertical move in the workplace. In Murmur, written and directed by Heather Young, Donna (Shan MacDonald) has quite a few problems, with the two most pertinent being her alcoholism and her daughter, who wants nothing to do with her. As is usually the case, her issues are closely related.
After a drunk driving incident, the hammer comes down in the form of community service. Donna must serve time working at a pet hospital where her superior is a pink-haired teenager who—in her clumsy, soft-spoken way—walks Donna through the daily grind. Donna listens and obeys, not putting up a fight. She’s resigned to her fate because she knows it’s of her own making. When a mess of a dog, Charlie, is going to be put down, Donna steps up and offers to take him home—give him a comfortable life for what little time he has left. At this point in the movie, preconceived notions kick in, and you groan loudly, thinking the story will be about a troubled woman who learns to live again by taking care of a sick, but hopelessly lovable dog. That’s not what happens.
“After a drunk driving incident, the hammer comes down in the form of community service.”
All Charlie does for Donna is to replace the bottle, which was itself a finger in a dam. While that might sound like a fair trade, it kicks off a sad, pathetic spiral into animal after animal, each another finger in the dam—self-medication to mask the symptoms, rather than get to the root cause. Bringing it back around, these pets allow Donna to refocus her time and energy on taking care of them, rather than herself, which is a mountain too intimidating for her to climb—or, possibly, beyond her capabilities as an individual.
The aforementioned spiral unravels in a short-spoken, declarative way, trading any cinematic tricks for—to quote the good people of the Coca-Cola company—”the real thing.” This includes some Rossellini-Esque casting, with what I assume to be many non-actors, and the kind of bleak, real-world locations that someone like Donna might actually find herself in. Is there anything more depressing than a doctor’s office with a poster of a dolphin on the wall?
Young’s dedication to realism—not worship, which can kneecap other movies like this—gives Donna’s story precisely what it needs: an environment of quiet hopelessness. She lives in the prison beneath the prison that has no sunlight or sound. You’re meant to be submerged in this life, rather than follow it from one point to another. The latter would be impossible because Donna’s life is such a series of bad decisions—many of which begin as self-prescribed remedies to self-diagnosed problems—that it’s senseless to find a beginning in all of it. An end—that’s a little easier to find. But that’s not where Murmurs leaves Donna. It leaves her somewhere worse.
Murmur screened at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.
"…dedication to realism...gives Donna’s story exactly what it needs: an environment of quiet hopelessness."