Reed Morano’s Meadowland (2015) is a film about loss, denial, and grief, in that order. The movie opens in darkness, as we hear a conversation between two parents and their young son. When the characters appear, they are shot in such tight close-up that we feel part of their family’s easy intimacy. The script immediately endears the son to us with dialogue that establishes him as an individual with particular likes, dislikes, and loves. When his parents stop at a service center and the boy disappears while using the toilet, we feel their panic. Fanning out from the service station, the parents yell their son’s name, to no avail.
A year later, the boy’s father Phil (Luke Wilson), a police officer, is cooperating with a detective’s efforts to identify the son’s killer. His mother Sarah (Olivia Wilde), a high school English teacher, refuses to believe that her son is dead, telling her brother-in-law, “My son is alive. He’s out there…. He’s living with another family.”
Deprived of any certainty about what happened to their son, both parents go off the rails. Phil tries to goad another bereaved parent into murdering the man who killed his daughter in a hit and run. A disaffected Sarah neglects her assigned students and becomes obsessed with Adam, a special needs boy on the Autism spectrum. Sarah sees Adam both as a substitute for her lost child and as a reflection of her own intractable refusal to be as others would like her to be.
A great director elicits great performances. Serving as her own cinematographer, Morano documents Sarah’s shift from numbness to grief with camerawork that beautifully balances darkness and light. In one of the film’s best scenes, Sarah follows Adam’s father into a bar, for reasons revealed later. She is shrouded in a hooded sweatshirt whose drab yellow perfectly captures her flattened inner state. The room is a velvety dark that contrasts dramatically with the brightly-illuminated liquor bottles in the background. The ensuing dialogue between the two characters, their hand gestures and facial expressions, the deftness with which Morano and editor Madeleine Gavin use music playing on the bar’s jukebox to transition from this scene to the next, all offer a master class in how to use the grammar of film to map even the most elusive emotions.