A gentle, but evocative and effective mixture of drama, romance, mysticism, and science, writer-director Akash Sherman’s Clara takes what could’ve been a standard, hokey meet-cute scenario and turns it into something intelligent and emotionally fruitful. In the wrong hands, Clara’s tale of a wounded astronomer and a free spirited young woman might’ve been just another rehashing of Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. While a handful of Sherman’s plot elements are predictable and visible from space, Clara remains a gorgeously mounted, well paced, admirably restrained, and exceptionally performed low-key crowd pleaser.
Bitter university astronomy professor and researcher Dr. Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams) has grown frustrated and impatient in his desire to discover a potentially habitable planet outside our solar system. Following a tragedy that led to his divorce, Isaac has become obsessed with discovering such a planet; abandoning social commitments, turning his back on friends, generally acting like a jerk, and diving so far into his work that he can’t process anything else. After he’s sacked from his Ontario university for improper and unauthorized use of a high powered telescope, Isaac is left scrambling for a way to continue and prove his research before a recently launched satellite imaging system is able to provide similar data to amateur and professional astronomers around the world. Isaac begins the process of looking for a live-in, unpaid intern to help in his research, but the only taker is Clara (Troian Bellisario), an eager, homeless, immensely intelligent young woman with little experience in the field, but a desire to learn as quickly as possible. Although initially reluctant and somewhat disapproving of Clara’s belief that the scientific and the otherworldly can somehow co-exist, Isaac agrees to take her on as a partner. They discover what might be an “earth mass” twenty light years away, and their previously professional relationship becomes a lot more personal and complicated in the process.
In spite of all its talk about science and pseudoscience (and an uneasy mounting of an astronomical endeavour that feels more like a scavenger hunt contest), Clara has a strong, romantic, and classical narrative backbone. At its heart a film about a kindhearted free spirit nurturing a broken soul back to health, Clara is the kind of work that could turn hackneyed in a hurry, and it’s a true testament to Sherman, his cast, and crew that the story never fully succumbs to its basest and simplest impulses. Clara has a familiar story that’s framed in a refreshing light that’s easier to buy into than most efforts pitched at such a level. With Clara, Sherman has found a way to embrace and play with genre cliches, while distilling them into the humane essences that make such tropes so pleasing, enjoyable, and moving in the first place.
There three most striking elements of Clara are its look, its pacing, and its casting, all of which make some of the deficiencies of Sherman’s increasingly flighty material easier to overlook. Cinematographer Nick Haight captures both the cosmic ballets that play out among the stars and the sadness of the earthbound characters with gorgeous realism. There aren’t moments within Clara that are either too slick or too shaky to be believable. On a visual level, Torontonian Sherman and his collaborators take the material as seriously as possible, lending Clara a lived-in sense of authenticity. Isaac and Clara might not inhabit a gorgeous world, but the film provides the audience with a sense of visual clarity that both characters seem to be ignoring around them.
Sherman also doles out narrative details, plot twists, and character enhancements at a restrained and leisurely pace. Whenever Clara decides to move its story or characters in different directions, Sherman doesn’t suddenly spiral them out of control with jarring movements. The characters warm to each other gradually, and even though setbacks in their research can cause Isaac to grown more insular than he already was, there’s still a feeling that he’s not too far off track to be saved. The structure is solid, but simple. Isaac and Clara will work on an aspect of their project, they’ll learn something about each other in the process, and then either a positive or a negative outcome will reshape their dynamic. Yes, it’s still just another film where a woman teaches a selfish and obstinate man how to love and trust again, but the story in Clara remains earthbound and relatively humble when compared to a lot of similarly minded genre efforts.
The material also gives Adams and Bellisario ample opportunity to shine in career best leading performances from both of them. Adams doesn’t lean too heavily into Isaac’s increasingly passive-aggressive and entitled personality, instead taking a more realistic approach that matches the character’s over-reliance on facts and data brilliantly. A lot of Adams’ performance is remarkably physical and based on dramatic timing. Through a combination of purposefully uncomfortable body language that belies a false sense of confidence and long pauses designed to make sure that Isaac has thought his responses through carefully before speaking them (unless he’s angry or flustered), Adams nicely conveys the actions of a man who’s confident on the outside, but insecure and crumbling on the inside. He has perfect chemistry with Bellisario, who portrays Clara not as a scatterbrained, quirky, hippie type, but rather as an equally hurting and confused person who can accept and process her own flaws in productive ways that Isaac can’t. Together in tandem with Sherman’s focused take on the material, they anchor the film with realistic sensibilities, actions, and reactions. There’s even a pair of noteworthy supporting performances here from Ennis Esmer and Kristen Hager, as Isaac’s increasingly tested best friend and the protagonist’s deeply sympathetic ex-wife, respectively.
As with most high concept romances and films keen on examining the line between the scientific and the mystical, there will come a point heading into the third act of Clara where audiences will likely be torn on whether or not they want to go along with it. Your mileage may vary, but while the story might grow increasingly fantastical, it stops just shy of corniness and ultimately earns its ambiguously crowd pleasing conclusion. Does it become a tad manipulative? Perhaps, but these types of films are rarely as strong and clearly realized as Clara. It’s a good primer on how to do this specific kind of genre film as correctly and genuinely as possible. Sherman and company have got this kind of thing down to a science.
Clara opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, November 30, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Clara: