The emotion is nearly as chilly as the frigid Canadian prairie setting in “Aloft,” an arthouse drama about a rift between mother and son that also keeps its audience at a distance. Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film pushes its enigmatic and quietly brooding qualities to the point that it’s inaccessible, despite some mildly intriguing spiritual story elements and skilled performances by Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, and Mélanie Laurent.
Single mom Nana (Connelly) is in a difficult place from the start, so desperate over the condition vaguely afflicting her young son (Winta McGrath) that she’ll apparently try any remedy. This includes dragging him and his junior-falconer brother, Ivan (Zen McGrath), to the northern hinterlands, where she and other distraught parents hope to meet with a New Age healer known as the Architect (William Shimell). Nana is a soul-battered but also tragedy-hardened woman who’s been drawn into a circle of similar personalities, and tempers flare all around when her family has a hand in the session going awry. Bad news for Ivan and the falcon he’s toted along on the trip.
Fast forward 20 years, and Ivan (Murphy) is now grown and living a reclusive family life with his wife (Oona Chaplin), their infant son, and his prize birds. Like his mother, he’s a jumble of contradictions, capable of tenderness, but also a bear to all from the moment that a journalist (Laurent) comes calling for an interview on falconry.
Turns out that maybe Ivan has cause to be moody: Laurent’s secretive character has more than a slight interest in tracking down Ivan’s long-estranged mother. And as we learn through alternating flashbacks, the emotional dynamic between Ivan and Nana only grew more challenging after that strange pilgrimage. We see the healer tell Nana that he thinks they may share a similar gift — a suggestion she resists, then reluctantly embraces with unforeseen consequences. The childhood’s-end fallout has left Ivan with enough unresolved issues that he’s compelled to tag along when his interviewer heads for Nana’s retreat above the Arctic Circle.
This long-ago wounded boy does finally get the chance to unburden himself, in a scene that Murphy and prosthetically wrinkled Connelly play with tonally consistent restraint. It’s another subtle tumult of feelings from Llosa and her actors — coldness and vulnerability, numbness and hurt. But again, there’s just too much that’s inscrutable. Is Ivan meant to experience some catharsis? Are we? And why are falcons his escape, anyway? Whatever its narrative and thematic intentions, “Aloft” leaves us hanging.
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Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.