2017 Film Essays

Netflix from 5 to 6: Reed Morano’s ‘Meadowland’

Q.V. Hough’s column ‘Netflix from 5 to 6’ explores streaming titles with IMBD ratings between 5.0-6.0 and Rotten Tomatoes scores above 50%. The purpose is to examine what makes the films appealing to critics but problematic for casual viewers.

Reed Morano’s Meadowland is a difficult watch. The 5.8 IMDB rating suggests that many Netflix viewers struggle to connect with the streaming story of loss and grief, or maybe subscribers just aren’t fully committing. It’s worth nothing that the film currently has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating. So, there’s a large gap between critics and people offering feedback online. What the reason for this? To me, it’s simple. Meadowland focuses on grief. Morano focuses on the debilitating sadness that can misdirect tortured souls towards an alternative universe, a place where pain — that up-all-night-pain — makes sense. It’s about perspective and experience, human connections and giving into the grey areas of life that so many people try to ignore. Meadowland’s inherent darkness, evident from the opening sequence, will probably turn many Netflix viewers away, which is a shame.

Meadowland is Morano’s directorial debut. It also marks her 15th feature as a cinematographer. The film examines a kidnapping and the effect on the victim’s parents, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson). Meadowland challenges viewers with its dark scenarios and heavy dialogue. One can approach Morano’s film from a practical standpoint (“entertain me or I’ll find something better”), but it’s worthwhile to fully submit to the narrative. Meadowland terrifies me. It reminds me of childhood fears and the fact that I don’t know anything – absolutely nothingabout raising children. But, like so many others, I do know what it’s like to feel helpless. Everybody feels that way at some point. For some, it’s more intense. In Meadowland, the characters live in that grey area, a place where one may feel grateful for everything positive but still succumb to depression and all its weight. Morano captures a looming darkness. At times, Meadowland feels like David Fincher’s Se7en, full of people that are stuck in the shit. But it’s most definitely Morano’s film, evidenced by her polished cinematography and poignant direction.

After three viewings, the dialogue seems to be Meadowland’s biggest flaw. Screenwriter Chris Rossi tries too hard to emphasize the obvious. When Morano highlights Sarah’s tired eyes, viewers can easily connect the dots. (The narrative takes place one year after the kidnaping, and Sarah self-medicates to maintain.) But in the classroom, Rossi has a student explain the day’s text, and how some people can “see better than in the dark.” They can “get used to it, until it gets light again.” This type of guiding dialogue isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels unnecessary (to me).

In contrast, Meadowland’s domestic dialogue has a more subdued tone. When Sarah interacts with her brother-in-law, Tim (Giovanni Ribisi) — a man she doesn’t necessarily respect — brief moments of clarity emerge, for the characters and hopefully for the viewer, too. Tim, a hippie type from Portland, respects Sarah, and he reaches out to comfort her. Tim may be a “fucking mess” (according to Sarah), but he’s still wise enough to drown out the external noise to see what’s actually there. Tim’s words of wisdom feel purely genuine. Morano pulls back with her camera; the moment and the implications are less blatant than the classroom scene, and it’s an effective sequence.

Throughout Meadowland, some difficult visuals receive special attention, most notably when Sarah begins cutting herself. She’s created a new world in which animal cookies have intense meaning and elephant discussions further drive her into a downward spiral. Despite Sarah’s sorrow, humanity emerges from day to day, as she bonds with an outcast student, Adam (Ty Simpkins). He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes him different than others, but he’s even more of an outsider because he’s not “Rain Man.” Still, Adam gets by the best he can, along with his new friend, the teacher. Director Morano further accentuates Sarah’s inner turmoil when she meets Adam’s aloof foster parent, Joe (Kevin Corrigan). Their small talk leads to a casual hook-up and a heart-breaking moment, one that suggests Sarah is not only deeply troubled, but perhaps unfit to be around children. Yes, she can mask her pain, but it’s that deep, deep sorrow that affects her day-to-day decision-making. Meanwhile, husband Phil struggles to maintain personal connections with friends and acquaintances. He lashes out psychologically and needs physical connections, too. Meadowland hammers away at certain bits of information, but many sequences are more cryptic due to Morano’s directorial and visual restraint.

Wilde delivers some of her best work in Meadowland, as she channels personal suffering without ranting and raving. It’s in the eyes and the sadness behind her uncomfortable smile. I often scratch my head when screenwriters use constant f-bombs to convey emotion. Fucking this, fucking that. In Meadowland, Wilde fully submits herself to the character, and credit must be given to the aforementioned screenwriter, Chris Rossi, for not composing dreadful lines. Nuance is crucial. If a character must unload verbally, then the audience should feel that emotion. Every word should cut like a knife. In Meadowland, Wilde’s eyes tell the story, along with her non-verbal behavior. Sarah carries a heavy, heavy burden, and it shows.

Both Wilson and Ribisi deliver subtle performances, affecting in different ways. Phil represents someone that just can’t connect — he’s so rattled by emotion and negativity that he can’t differentiate a fantasy from reality. His brother, Tim, doesn’t have all the material things that many people covet, but he understands that he can make a difference. How? Well, that’s the question that so many people grapple with under such circumstances. When do you confront a loved one about their obvious problems? And how will that affect them psychologically? Tim, in all his apparent misery, remains supportive rather than skeptical.

With Meadowland, Reed Morano doesn’t shy away from pain, and neither should Netflix viewers. Look at what’s actually there, see beyond the obvious darkness and misery. Unless one fully commits to each and every visual, the film may feel disjointed and upsetting. But just keep in mind that Morano began her career as a cinematographer. Some clues can easily go unnoticed, especially for casual Netflix watchers. My suggestion: try to experience Meadowland through the eyes of a couple that will never, ever, have the right answer for why life happened the way it did.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.