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Review: Like a House on Fire – “An intriguing story”

Jared Abrahamson and Sarah Sutherland in Like a House on Fire

It’s been two years since Dara (Sarah Sutherland) has been home.  She sits on a train, anxiously looking out the window.  When she arrives, no one is home to greet her, so she lets herself in to her father’s home and plunks out some chords on an out of tune piano.  She gets cleaned up, and now refreshed from her trip heads to another house.  When she arrives the sound of a child laughing makes her scurry away from the door, hiding behind a car across the road.  Because Dara isn’t just coming back to her home town, she’s coming home to a husband, Dan (Jared Abrahamson) and almost four-year-old daughter Isabel (the sweetly adorable Margaux Vaillancourt) whom she’s had no contact with since she unceremoniously left.

However, if Dara is expecting to just walk straight into her old life, she’s about to get a rude awakening.  Dan, who didn’t even know she was coming back, is now with another woman, Therese (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) who is seven months pregnant with their child.  Isabel doesn’t even recognize her, instead seeing Therese, the woman who has spent the last two years raising her, as her mother.  Dara, whose reasons for leaving seem to be related to a mental health crisis she suffered as a new mom, now needs to figure out how she fits in.  While she may have physically returned, can she also return to her place in the family and life that she left?

Writer and director Jesse Noah Klein sets the stage of Dara’s nervousness and anxiety from the opening frame, where we can hear her fast breathing as the scene comes into focus.  However that emotional intensity doesn’t really seem to translate through the rest of the film, a disconnect that for me, meant Like a House on Fire never really hit its intended mark.  This is an intriguing story, a promising set up.  It’s not a new idea, there are plenty of stories about people returning back to their home town, but a mother trying to reintroduce herself to her daughter is an interesting slant.  It’s a premise that left me wishing I felt more strongly about it in the end.  However, it’s evident from early on in this film that Dara’s new situation really is something she will just need to get used to, suppressing the innate drama in the story.

My ambivalence for this film is not to say that it also doesn’t have its merits.  Sarah Sutherland, probably best known for portraying Catherine Meyer on VEEP, puts forth a layered performance as Dara.  She’s an interesting actor, who gives us a window into Dara’s inner turmoil while she outwardly attempts to stay calm and prove she’s changed and can offer her family stability.  Her scenes with the young Vaillancourt are the most compelling here, where mother and daughter try to get reacquainted.

People leave their lives for all sorts of reasons.  Some will never return, finding their way down another path.  Others still will want to come back home – and it’s never the same.  What we often don’t realize is that we are all just satellites, orbiting one another.  If our path changes, the others keep moving, and sometimes, ultimately move on.  Like a House on Fire shows that while a family dynamic might change, its moving parts can always come together with a little perspective.  It may be a reasonably realistic view, but its lack of emotional drama make it only ordinary viewing.

Like a House on Fire, which premiered as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2020 Industry Selects programme is available on digital platforms including iTunes/Apple TV, Vimeo on Demand and Amazon Direct beginning March 30th.

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