Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) lives behind an exceptionally well-locked door. Her apartment has three locks of different kinds, keeping out anyone who managed to get past the intercom protecting the front entrance. As a woman living alone with a teenage daughter, perhaps she has her reasons. Just tonight, a man followed her home from her high school reunion, catching the same train, shadowing her from the station and finally sleeping outside her building under a plastic bag. Strangely, she is quite blasé about that: In the morning, she deals with it, demanding this man’s phone and finding someone in his contacts who can come and pick him up.

She is nervous, but she is a coper. What really stays with Sylvia is the sexual abuse she endured in childhood, first at home and then at school, where a coterie of older bullies would get her drunk and force her to service them on the way home. Those memories. One look at her tells you she’s haunted.

Memory‘s Mexican director Michel Franco long has been interested in misfits; he returns repeatedly, in whatever language or location he is using at the time, to characters who are clinging to the margins, seen as inadequate. The man under the plastic bag is Saul (Peter Sarsgaard). She thinks she remembers him from school; she thinks he was one of her tormentors. Saul can’t be sure of what he remembers; he has dementia which, as his brother Isaac (Josh Charles) explains when he arrives to collect him, may be barely noticeable for weeks but can then plunge him into total confusion. As a matter of fact, he needs a caretaker, someone to be with him when Isaac is out making money. Would she consider it? She does. What she doesn’t admit is her own burden of trauma or that she is a recovering alcoholic. Thirteen years sober, but addiction – like the past – is never over.

Saul can’t remember raping a younger girl at school, but he isn’t outraged by the accusation, either; he is too used to being told he has forgotten things. Did it happen? Perhaps it is Sylvia whose memory has failed her. It doesn’t prevent them from developing an understanding that grows into something much greater, a physical bond that they don’t have to name. As portrayed by Sarsgaard, Saul’s failings seem to have given him a glowing calm that is the perfect counterweight to Sylvia’s agitation. Which makes Saul’s brother, for whom he has ostensibly been such a burden, furious beyond words.

Franco builds these characters’ lives in a an accrual of detail and incident that is perfectly judged: never overbearing, never melodramatic, never too dismal to bear, but a log of events – soon to become more memories – that shows people knocked about unfairly by circumstance when those around them are not, the sheer unfairness of it. In a complex, utterly committed performance, Chastain gives Sylvia a prickliness that is almost tangible but always understandable. She never will forget or forgive her mother’s refusal to believe her when she told her she was abused. Within her family, she was cast first as the troublemaker, then as the failure. She is still a failure.

Her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever, solidly credible as always) did better; she married a high-flying lawyer. She slips Sylvia a bit of money when she can, but surreptitiously; her husband Jorge (Josh Philip Weinstein) would not approve. He doesn’t approve of his sister-in-law; essentially, he doesn’t approve of anything that makes him uncomfortable. When his own children ask why Sylvia never drinks, he shuts down her answer. There will be no talk about alcoholism in this house, he orders. There is a large glass of wine in his hand. There always is. There are subjects – a great many subjects, as it turns out – that should be left alone.

Franco, who both writes and directs, leapfrogs the narrative conventions of family dynamics to home in on these hostilities, whether overt or subterranean, that may be unanticipated but make perfect sense once you see them at work. His scalpel never misses. Isaac’s fury at losing his role as chief controlling officer of his brother’s life, for example, may be contrary to logic – why is he not relieved, his heart gladdened? – and yet as soon as he bellows into view, telling Sylvia to leave Saul alone if she actually cares about him, you can see it, the crystalline truth of it. Even that Isaac’s boho daughter would be furious at this other woman taking up all the space in her beloved uncle’s life; she reckons Sylvia must be some kind of gold-digger, because who could love a man losing his grip?

It is all exactly right in the writing but also in the performances; there is thoughtfulness behind all of it. Franco has been working this dramatic seam, always with exemplary actors, for years. He is a fixture on the festival circuit, with good reason. His films get small releases, smaller than they deserve. Perhaps Memory is the film that will bring him to a broader public. I hope so.

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