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TIFF 2019 Review: Murmur

In the end, all we really want as human beings is a connection.  People find these connections in many different ways, through work, family, friends – being connected to others brings meaning and purpose.  It’s all main character Donna really wants in the debut feature from director Heather Young, Murmur.

We are introduced to Donna (Shan MacDonald) in the opening frames of the film, alone in her apartment vaping and pouring a glass of wine.  It’s quiet.  Eerily quiet.  We find Donna texting her daughter who has yet to reply to a series of messages.  She is truly alone.  However, the next day Donna makes her way to the local animal shelter, ordered community service work by the Department of Corrections for a DUI conviction.  Here she mops and disinfects kennels, almost in an attempt to wash away her sins.  She assists the veterinarians performing ultrasounds and files the sharp bits off of chew toys for the dogs.  She also forges a connection with an elderly dog named Charlie who is suffering from heart problems, much like Donna herself.

With reservation, the shelter allows Donna to take Charlie home, making it clear that she cannot keep saving every animal who may need to be euthanized.  But Donna quickly puts all her energy into the care of Charlie, giving him his medicated baths, taking him for walks, eventually pouring all her remaining wine down the sink.  He gives her new purpose, especially since her daughter is still to make any contact at all.  So renewed is Donna that she eventually also takes home a cat, then buys a hamster, then starts surveying online forums for pets needing homes.  Pretty soon Donna has amassed a menagerie of dogs, cats and rodents who take over her apartment, quickly sending her surroundings into unkempt disarray.

Murmur is a feature shot in a documentary style that blurs the lines between reality and fiction.  Its cast are all non-professional actors, many of whom are playing themselves, many of whom you don’t even see, but only hear.  The camera is almost always trained on Shan MacDonald, often avoiding the other faces of her conversation partners.  Whether this was a specific directing choice or a request from the subjects remains to be seen, but it is a useful device to make your experience with Donna even more intimate and isolating.  MacDonald still remains mesmerizing during these sequences, however, her close up facial expressions (or sometimes lack thereof) reiterating her loneliness.  None of the dialogue in the film feels forced – all the cast speak plainly and realistically which purposefully makes this often feel more documentary than fiction.

Director Heather Young, an award winning short film maker, crafts a difficult character portrait here and does so with relative deftness. It’s brave work to not only create such a flawed protagonist, but also to create a film that is so quiet and still and contemplative.  The film is also compassionate.  It’s a deep study of a woman struggling with addiction, who replaces one vice for another with disastrous consequences.  While it would be easy to find Donna distasteful in her actions, Young instead treats her with empathy creating a story not often seen on the big screen.

Murmur is not always easy to watch.  You’d love Donna to have the help and support she needs yet she grapples with that lack of connection.  She is a woman with a lot of love to give, but with no recipient in sight, she tries to fill a void.  It’s something that is inherently relatable. Murmur is a story that is unfortunately only too realistic, told in a most authentic way.

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