Jessica Goldberg’s laconic meditation on abandonment and need is one of the most interesting theatrical adaptations I’ve seen in quite a while, even if it is a bit indulgent and self-serious in parts. Based upon her play of the same name, Refuge centers on the stunted growth of a young woman forced into dropping out of college and acting as a mother to her two irreparably damaged teenaged siblings. While it isn’t breaking any new ground in terms of its subject matter (although using that as a measuring stick for the worth of a film is totally gross), the interplay this film manages between characters as they develop is mesmerizing and ultimately super worthwhile.
Amy, played surprisingly well by television veteran Krysten Ritter, is left to take her of her brother — who’s almost completely debilitated by a traumatic brain injury — and sister, whose proclivities for self-destructive behavior aren’t doing Amy any favors. After their parents go on vacation and send nothing back aside from a postcard, the working-class trio of siblings are left to fend for themselves in that poorer part of the Hamptons that not many people outside the metro New York area know about. Amy has been forced at too early an age into the role of motherhood, and performs one of the most monotonous jobs imaginable: stuffing direct mail marketing materials into envelopes in what little free time she has.
Goldberg’s spare, naturalistic dialogue sets as much of a tone for the film as the muted color palette Doug Emmett shrewdly employs as the film’s cinematographer. Although it’s not all as bleak as that last sentence might’ve led you to believe. There are moments of humor that punch through the seriousness of Amy and her siblings’ situation, and they have that much more impact because of the listless nature of the rest of the film. Of course, the downside of this is that the movie tends to drag on a bit, and does indeed take itself a little too seriously.
We first meet Amy when she runs into Sam (Brian Geraghty) at a shitty local bar and the two of them promptly get into bed together. The scene is terse and poignant, brimming with desperation and the kind of abandon you might expect from a random hookup between quiet 20-something strangers on a school night. Sam, drifting through town and consummately aimless, seems to appeal to Amy almost because of rather than in spite of his emotional paralysis. The next 90 or so minutes is largely dedicated to how Sam and Amy (and by extension her siblings) relate to each other. There are some entirely too familiar tropes of indie romance that poke their heads up every now and then, but strong performances from both Ritter and Geraghty quickly mitigate any concerns brought up by them.
Goldberg successfully transmits her play to film by taking as much advantage as possible out of the wordless spaces that exist between her characters, allowing the visual import of their interactions just as much weight as the skillfully crafted if a bit mumbly dialogue. Refuge is far from a perfect film, and those who already have a bone to pick with decidedly somber portrayals of romantic love will find plenty to hate. Regardless, Goldberg’s crafted a strong first feature, entreating her audience to desire more from her in the years to come.