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My Zoe
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by Jay Seaver

"Not what it should be and all the better for it."
4 stars

Come for the science fictional premise, stay for the brutal means by which Julie Delpy gets you there, although I'm not exactly complaining about that. Movies like "My Zoe" are so often focused on the ethics of an innovation as to make the science separate from the everyday life that it will eventually impact. Instead, the ugly divorce and lingering torture that follow are precisely articulated enough that one may forget the two recognizable names in the opening credits who will play a big part in the film's back half.

Delpy plays Isabelle, an immunologist living in Berlin, sharing custody of her seven-year-old daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) with her British ex-husband James (Richard Armitage). At first glance, they appear to be handling it well, but they squabble over making up days with Zoe when work takes one out of town or when the other can't accommodate their changes of plans. That's before Zoe's seemingly innocuous cold suddenly develops into a neurological emergency. The hospital stay brings out their best and worst in equal measure, and eventually pushes Isabelle to seek the help of Thomas Fischer (Daniel Brühl), a geneticist she met at a conference several years ago whose controversial work has pushed him to set up shop in Moscow rather than the more tightly regulated European Union.

Delpy waits for the moments when Isabelle and James are at their rawest to lay bare why their marriage fell apart - and make no mistake, Delpy and Richard Armitage sell the heck out of what a disaster of a couple they were in ugly, convincing fashion - but those details aren't what matters. The almost clinical detail of managing the separation is what's important; it's painful and seems to make even simple things require a checklist five times as long as necessary, and even as it seems to enrage Isabelle and James it keeps them on track. It provides structure to what's initially a movie about how marriages collapse and how unexpected tragedies can be hell. It's a painfully honest look at how, while kids are wonderful themselves, the responsibilities and societal expectations that come with them can twist a person in ways that aren't totally healthy, too say the least. These two aren't good for each other, but they can't not be a part of one another's lives.

That twisting is how Isabelle can wind up mad-scientist mad with grief, even if Daniel Brühl's Thomas is the one who can't resist the temptation she presents to his ego. There's a bit of Victor Frankenstein to him, for sure, but he and science itself are not self-starting dangers here, even if they are all too willing to do what someone like Isabelle wants. It's fascinating how consuming this quest gets, with Gemma Arterton grounding scenes (and arguably the whole movie) as the sensible person who keeps getting pulled in further because she can't not be: She's too close and it's too relatable. The steady, realistic perspective serves Delpy well here, too; the audience is in the right mindset to appreciate the clinical detail and seeming mundanity of research compared to the convenience and ease presented by more action/horror-oriented sci-fi.

It's not all mundane, of course, but Delpy is really clever with how she deploys the futuristic or weird bits. She keeps the audience in familiar territory for most of the first half - it feels maybe a couple years into the future if that when such things aren't really important - but then the script says something like "Isabelle crumples the iPad" and it's both an emotional moment and a signal that it's time to go further. She and her team make Dr. Fischer's waiting room unnerving in a creative way without busting the budget or hopping genres. It is, arguably, less eccentric than some of her comedy work, but really excellently deployed.

I'm not sure about the coda - I feel like this would be the thing other filmmakers spend the whole movie exploring and it's like four minutes - but there's an honesty to it you maybe don't get in anything but a glimpse. The situation it presents is weird but may not be fifty years from now, and it sits in the middle of all of the uncertainty that came before as much as it defies those feelings. It undercuts what one may feel the movie's theme should be, but in doing so acknowledges that these are people, not philosophical points.

It means that "My Zoe" is not really the film that one expects or that it seemingly should be at either end, but it's smart and raw in how it defies that conventional wisdom. A lot of science fiction looking for respectability does itself no favors by reducing world-changing ideas to the questions people deal with every day, but Delpy's on the right track by starting from those questions and following them wherever they might lead.

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originally posted: 03/03/21 16:23:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Cinequest Film Festival For more in the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival series, click here.

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  26-Feb-2021 (R)

  05-Oct-2020 (12)


Directed by
  Julie Delpy

Written by
  Julie Delpy

  Julie Delpy
  Richard Armitage
  Daniel Brühl
  Gemma Arterton
  Lindsay Duncan
  Sophia Ally

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