‘The Outrun’ Review: Saoirse Ronan Shines in a Muddled Story of Sobriety

Sobriety is a journey that only the pure of heart can conquer. It requires nothing else of you but the willingness to try and try again, and those who do so will always be commendable in the face of life’s greatest challenges. So when faced with these particular kinds of underdog alcoholic recovery stories on-screen, there’s an expectation that they all have to fit a similar mold.

The fact is that they don’t, but they do need to give us a narrative structure that allows the audience to take something away from the film, whether that’s the filmmaker’s message or one the story imbues within them. Despite some smart directorial insight and a great cast, Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Outrun” has exactly this narrative problem and it wreaks a bit of havoc on the overall impact.

“The Outrun,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Friday, follows Rona (Saoirse Ronan), an alcoholic in recovery with more than a few demons locked away in her soul. In an effort to heal herself from a multitude of old wounds, many of which stem directly from her disease, she returns home to the Scottish Orkney Islands after getting out of rehab. There, she confronts those demons and makes a covenant with herself for a better life.

Fingscheidt has an admirable directorial eye that would benefit from a bit of streamlining, but then some of the visuals she concots are quite mesmerizing and empowering. “The Outrun” feels a bit uneven because of these shifts, but there’s merit in many of the individual concepts the director and Amy Liptrot bring to the table. Fingscheidt may not have her vision fleshed out here in a way that is easy to follow, but the more it sits with you the more compelling the questions she raises about self-acceptance and redemption become.

The film is based on Liptrot’s memoir and it feels as though her closeness to the script lends to the vast emotional heart the audience feels in the core of the story. It’s a bit muddled in execution, but despite its faults, the film is visually ambitious with things to say hidden under the surface.

Once you get past the confusion, there is a lot to mine, even when things don’t exactly work. In fact, there are several elements that would have benefited from more attention in the narrative. The most prescient one is certainly the choice to have Rona fascinated with the will-it-won’t-it notion that she could possibly have powers that control the weather.

It’s a great metaphor that touches on having the willpower to enact change inside yourself when you need it most, but because of its strength as an asset to the narrative it would have been nice to see it explored more. Plus, the supernatural element the concept would bring to the overall project would fit in nicely with some of Fingscheidt’s dreamy shots and visuals.

And then there’s Ronan, who consistently comes into weighty parts with a natural ease. The role of Rona is no less intense than many of the others Ronan is known for playing, and because of her capacity for emotionality it makes sense to see her play someone like Rona.

Despite uneven material, Ronan confidently asserts herself in this part where much of the character’s efforts are trial and error. Ronan is so willing to crack and break herself on-screen, letting her emotional turmoil pool at her feet like egg yolk, and this film sees many touching, quiet moments in which she makes choices in this vein.

Ronan isn’t the only actor who shines. Paapa Essiedu, who plays Rona’s ex-boyfriend with whom she’s had a tumultuous break, is quietly wonderful in many flashback scenes that try to unspool the conflict between them that led to their demise. It’s a shame we don’t get to see him more, but this is Rona’s story and his character functions as something akin to a ghost of Christmas past as she tries to make sense of where she went wrong.

He’s not supposed to linger because it doesn’t serve the story. But Essiedu is such a presence that you can’t help but want more from him and, in turn, their narrative together. Ultimately, though, this film isn’t about romance, and that is refreshing in and of itself, so it’s a double-edged sword. Hopefully this role will bring more parts of substance Essiedu’s way.

Overall, the story is admirable, and between that and the two leading performances it makes you want to see the narrative through to the end. But once the credits roll, the film starts to register as muddled and somewhat shapeless. It’s not that the foundation isn’t there—directorially, in the text, and even in the central concept at hand—but the execution leaves something to be desired on this one, rendering the overall package somewhat forgettable.

“The Outrun” is a sales title at Sundance.

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