Miserable parents Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) can’t afford therapy. Instead, Adrienne settles for a free Date Night, a casual party that only reminds the couple of their problems: his wish to regress to a slacker-style flophouse, her resentment that he’s never proposed, which has begun to curdle into a suspicion that they’re a bad match, albeit one saddled with a 6-month-old daughter named Ellie and a new mortgage. They can’t rewind time. They can, however, re-experience it, after a gruesome car crash in “Wander Darkly’s” opening setup climaxes in Adrienne coming-to bleeding, delusional and certain she’s dead.
Is she? Writer-director Tara Miele’s slippery drama keeps the audience unsteady on their feet as the “It’s a Wonderful Life”-like structure follows Adrienne, skipping from her funeral forward 15 years, as Ellie (Inde Navarrette), now an angry teen, is living with her mother Patty (Beth Grant). A hallucinatory sequence might start in Matteo’s wood-shop and spiral the pair back to a romantic day in Mexico before spitting them out at the traumatic crash, concrete dissolving into a beach melting into an oil slick beneath them.
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Matteo hopes that if he tells Adrienne the story of their relationship, she’ll rejoin the living, instead of watching zombie movies on the couch and sighing, “These are my people.” Together, they revisit their major moments, though they disagree on everything, including the facts. As they prepare to sleep together for the first time (again), Adrienne laughs that she’s glad they no longer have to use condoms. “That’s because we don’t have sex anymore,” Matteo jokes, instantly regretting the bitter crack. But Miele allows the moment to be funny and nostalgic, until a candle ignites the curtains. Adrienne claims Matteo abandoned her in the flaming bedroom. Matteo insists he ran to get the fire extinguisher. The memories clash because their pain has rewritten the past.
Their cynicism allows them to sidestep big, predictable emotions for subtler layers. Miller’s Adrienne is resigned to the worst, whether that’s a casket or a break-up. Luna gives Matteo the fickle charm of a playboy used to getting his way, often by passive resistance. He’s terrifically funny, and so is she when mocking his flirtatious friend Shae (Aimee Carrero), who sashays into several recollections attempting to split up the couple. And yet, their knockabout frenemy banter falls short of feeling like true love. The chemistry isn’t quite compelling enough for the heartbreaking urgency “Wander Darkly” needs to deepen into something more than a well-done, worthwhile exercise.
Alex Weston’s plinking piano score is a lovely, steady accompaniment to Carolina Costa’s dizzying cinematography which whisks from domestic to surrealistic in a blink. Assembling the shoot must have taken militaristic precision. Sometimes, characters will pad out of the room in one shirt, and return in another, the only clue that weeks of time have passed. Miele charts the film by her characters’ emotional currents, and tries to simplify matters by having the couple blurt out exactly what they feel and why. Still, focusing on Christopher Lawrence’s costume changes can be the closest thing audiences have to a tether. In lieu of rooting for Adrienne and Matteo to find their way forward together — even Miele seems unconvinced they should reconcile — “Wander Darkly” is on steadier ground when each acknowledges how their actions contributed to the schism. “I should have loved you better,” admits Adrienne. Dead or alive, that’s an eternal truth.