The High Cost of Living (***)

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A well-acted melodrama that rises above its (mostly) derivative premise and inexperienced filmmaker, The High Cost of Living showcases Zach Braff in a very different type of role for him.  His performance is one of his best, and along with a heartbreaking turn by the little known French Canadian actress Isabelle Blais, they make this a worthwhile cinematic endeavor.  It’s a quiet little film, one made without grand ambition, and it shows.  Writer/director Deborah Chow is uneven in the director’s chair and adequate as a screenwriter, but she’s far from bad and somehow it comes together in an effective enough way that it works.  The film is flawed, but the two lead performances and slightly skewed take on the story make this something that I have no trouble recommending.

Henry (Braff) is a bit of a scumbag.  A transplanted New Yorker, he’s got a good heart, but he’s also a drug dealer and staying in Canada illegally (it’s never made clear if he had to leave the United States for legal reasons or not, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility).  He does this because it’s easy, he’s good at it, and it doesn’t require much effort.  Henry is shown to try and help his clients as best he can, like getting Methadone for a junkie in need, but he’s still not an upstanding citizen.  Nathalie (Blais) is a married woman about to have her first child.  There seems to be friction between her and her husband Michel (Patrick Labbe), but she’s excited to become a mother.  When she feels contractions and can’t get in touch with her husband at work, she calls a cab and heads out in the street to wait.  At that same moment, Henry is looking for an address in his car and isn’t paying attention.  He runs her over, and in a moment of terror, flees the scene.  When guilt takes over, he goes to see how she is, and finds an emotionally broken woman whose lost her baby, is on the outs with her husband, and seems to be lost in general.  He befriends her without explaining who he is, and a friendship begins that seems to be heading in the direction of romance.  As Henry fights to decide whether or not to tell her exactly who he is, Nathalie has to deal with an impending stillborn delivery and the police investigation into who hit her that night.  Of course things will come together in the end, but it’s more about the journey than the destination in this case.

I’ve always thought highly of Zach Braff as an actor, but I’ve conceded that he’s at his best when he’s reacting to others.  Here, he shows more range than ever before, playing his least quirky character yet.  Henry isn’t a “bad” man, but he’s selfish and lazy.  Braff plays the role perfectly, letting you see the good in the character while never completely covering up the scheming that he’s constantly doing.

Going by this role, it only increases my call for Braff to work more in film, as he’s clearly very talented.  As for Isabelle Blais, she blew me away as the grief stricken woman.  She expresses herself quietly but powerfully, and she just breaks your heart.  The two have good chemistry, and the best moments of the film are when they’re interacting.  Their bonding scenes are a bit light for the heavy melodrama of the rest of the flick, but I found it to be a respite from the dreariness as opposed to a tonal issue.  As for the other actors, Labbe plays his role a bit too much like a soap opera character, aside from Julian Lo as Henry’s friend Johnny who mistakenly is a suspect in the crime, no one really is there enough to leave an impression.  It’s all about Braff and Blais, and they wowed me.

As for Chow, she’s a work in progress.  Visually, her shots are a bit too dark, her handheld camera shakes a bit too much, and her editing is jarring.  None of these issues are big on their own, but they add up to be a bit of a distraction.  She’s got talent, but she needs time to grow.  Her writing is better, as it exhibits moments of originality with this story, but it’s clear that this is a tired premise to begin with.  Things kind of go off the rails in the third act after a compelling first act and a chemistry filled second act, but the final moments of the film redeem things.  I’m interested to see what Chow does next, as she’s got skill with actors, but she’ll need to work on some things in the meantime.

The High Cost of Living is saved by Zach Braff and Isabelle Blais doing some of the best acting I’ve seen in 2011.  The film first showed its head at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and was met with mixed reviews, so this is likely the most positive early review of the flick to date, but I stand by it.  This is a good (if unoriginal) movie with rather great acting and chemistry between the leads.  Look for it when it ends up hitting theaters, as it’s definitely worth your time in my book.