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Sometimes we all feel like we’re going crazy, or at least our family is, and as such, the movies have been home to myriad tales of dysfunctional types, fodder for all genres from comedy to drama. Their appeal comes from the familiarity, the how easily we might identify and connect with those on screen. With We Don’t Belong Here, the shadow of mental illness weighs heavy as issues large and small seemingly condemn from all sides, in an uncompromising film that has its own imbalances, despite several good performances.
Nancy Green (Catherine Keener) is mother to four grown children, three girls and a boy, all of whom suffer to some degree. Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is the youngest, in therapy, sexually awakening, and occasionally taking her meds for bipolar disorder. Elisa (Riley Keough) is the middle girl, a troubled yet famous pop star estranged from her mother. Madeline (Annie Starke) is the eldest, a motherly type who is burdened by her role as a young caregiver, and Maxwell (Anton Yelchin) is a gay man breaking down after an accident. All are connected by their pain.
Written and directed by Peer Pedersen, in his feature film debut, We Don’t Belong Here is a disjointed tale of dreams and fairytales, with bended realities and unfulfilled possibilities. At the heart of it is Lily, who serves as the narrator, a teen on that precarious edge between girl and woman, hindered by her disorder and the realization that her family is unstable, haunted by demons that continue to lurk in the shadows. She discovers Elisa’s diary and learns of a man named Frank Harper (Cary Elwes), who sexually abused her as a child, and that’s not all. We see much of the world through Lily’s maturing eyes, and as such, things are distorted, like her doctor (Molly Shannon), who never seems truly in tune with her job, repeating her diagnosis and feigning interest. This keeps us on a kind of teetering edge as our doubts are constantly prodded, questioning what is real and not.
That sentiment is pushed to its limits in the film’s most impactful moment that sort of pulls the rug out from under the viewer but because it is so well executed is mostly forgivable. That falls on Keener who is terrific to watch, playing a woman wholly defined by her unstable children, a reality that shapes her every action and anchors her to the great depths of a maddening sea. Her best friend is Joanne (Maya Rudolph), whose only children have grown and left, and lingers in the peripheral as a reminder of a possible romance that they both gave up but seems now the unfulfilled dream.
In Yelchin’s final onscreen performance, he plays the most broken of the children, struggling with his identity and suicidal haunts. He always had a tenderness about him, a boyish naivety that helped ground many of his roles, even ones that were dark. Here, he does more good work in an ensemble cast that all do well in a story that puts more effort into the conflicts than resolutions, a choice that in most ways layers it in some authenticity but even ambiguity as the closing moments leave many open questions.
We Don’t Belong Here is a curious and purposefully disjointed experience that is decidedly different, it’s narrative a stream of winding tributaries that all circuitously return to the source. What that means and where it leads this family is left entirely up to us. Challenging and sometimes frustrating, this is a uniquely-crafted journey saved by its genuine performances.
Movie description: We Don't Belong Here is a 2017 drama about the gaps and bridges of a troubled family barely holding on as their world seems ever on the edge of collapse.
Director(s): Peer Pedersen
Actor(s): Catherine Keener, Anton Yelchin, Kaitlyn Dever