Concussion, the debut of writer-director Stacie Passon, is a frustrating film to evaluate, because where its representational qualities (frank sexuality, smart gender politics) are commendable and unique, its more specific narrative features (plotting, character work) are vague, imprecise and often downright implausible. The pairing of a hard-to-buy premise with naturalistic direction and lofty psychological ambitions has the potential to be disastrous, and while Concussion’s execution never reaches that low of a point—Robin Weigert’s leading performance is too good to allow that—too much of the film’s human interactions strike an unsatisfying note, their occasional insights into mid-life crises and marital woes never seeming like a proper fit for a story about a forty-something woman who becomes an expert Manhattan call-girl named “Eleanor” overnight.
That forty-something woman, Abby, is played by Weigert, who’s perhaps still best known for her work as Calamity Jane on the HBO series Deadwood. (Charlie Kaufman buffs may be reminded of her brief but vital work in Synecdoche, New York, as well.) In the opening-credits montage, which combines ennui-establishing slow-motion with David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” we observe Abby at her biking-group class, where her similarly aged companions say things like, “After 40, you have to choose between your ass and your face.” Once the credits are over, this environment-setting vibe is cut short by the jolt of the titular act: one of Abby’s two sons has accidentally hits her with a baseball, sending her to the hospital with a bloodied face.
Oddly, and sometimes interestingly, Passon seems to refuse to draw a direct connection between Abby’s concussion and her ensuing behavior. There are a few disparate moments—including an effective long take of Abby jogging on a treadmill, ending with her stumbling to her knees and vomiting—where we sense the physical results of the injury, but most of the things that send Abby off on her peculiar journey of self-discovery, like her sexless relationship with her divorce-lawyer wife (Julie Fain Lawrence) or her unfulfilling days of vacuuming, doing laundry, and running errands, are clearly presented as activities that have long preceded the film’s inciting incident. There comes a point in Concussion, however, where this ambiguity appears less deliberate than it is simply confused or mishandled.
It doesn’t help that the development of Passon’s plot fails to convince on a logical level. One of Abby’s first post-concussion endeavors is to hook up with a Craiglist-level hooker; when she tells this to contractor Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), who’s helping Abby renovate a sleek Manhattan loft, he refers her to a more polished call girl (who, in a line that seems thrown in to capture a kind of faux-realism, says she’s dabbling in prostitution to pay her way through school). More baffling, still, is the idea that this call girl would go out of her way to tell Justin that Abby made for an exceedingly pleasurable and stimulating client—a compliment that eventually leads to Abby’s decision to become a call-girl herself. Luckily for Abby, Justin’s current girlfriend is another college student who uses prostitution to pay for her law-school studies.
These contrivances are difficult to process, especially because they’re presented at such a quick clip, as if they somehow formed a believable succession of events. Furthermore, there’s a lack of verisimilitude to the film’s portrayal of this milieu: despite all the heated girl-on-girl sex (which, of course, was the film’s buzz-grabbing claim to fame at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), there’s never really a moment where it appears as if we’re actually witnessing a plausible interaction between two women who have agreed to have sex in exchange for money. Rather, the highlights of the movie are the off-the-cuff conversations Abby has with her clients, including a 23-year-old virgin and a reluctant older woman (Laila Robins, Steve Martin’s wife from Planes, Trains & Automobiles) whose recollections of her distant husband are strikingly poignant. Maggie Siff is given a prominent role as a fellow New Jersey housewife; she’s fine, but the character is soured by some clichés (like having a Goldman Sachs husband).
Shooting both in Manhattan and Montclair (in her own home, no less), Passon’s style is clean and frequently cold, particularly in the scenes set in Abby’s chic loft, where the artsy flourishes of the design accumulate an air of emptiness—no doubt a reflection of Abby’s own existential crisis. (The loft’s front door looks like a prison gate.) Concussion could have benefited greatly had Lawrence been given a fuller part as Weigert’s wife; as it stands now, we never get a firm understanding of their relationship. Passon includes enough scenes (like one of Lawrence falling asleep during sex) that explain Abby’s unhappiness, but it’s unclear why the character’s crisis has just started, and whether or not she was ever completely happy with the relationship to begin with. But Weigert is the film’s constant saving grace, her fast wit and enormous range suggesting that Abby is aware of the irrationality of her situation—and yet, no matter what, remains hell-bent on seeing it through to the bitter end.
Director: Stacie Passon
Writer: Stacie Passon
Starring: Julie Fain Lawrence, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky, Robin Weigert
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013