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Evan Rachel Wood plays a troubled woman who forges a close bond with a teenage girl in this feature-length debut from Montreal-based photographers Carlos and Jason Sanchez.

Starring Evan Rachel Wood as a damaged woman who takes a docile teenage girl (Julia Sarah Stone) under her wing, into her bed and way over the line, A Worthy Companion gives a pulpy lesbian-obsession thriller premise the full arthouse treatment. Warning: You may miss the pulp.

By straining to play their lurid story for psychological realism, Montreal-based photographers and brothers Carlos and Jason Sanchez, making their feature-length debut, have instead drained it of life: Sluggish and somber, with nary a wink, chuckle or sigh of relief to mitigate the misery, the film is a slog. That's unfortunate, because the writer-directors have a strong visual sense, and, in Wood, a magnetic lead one of those born actors whose every flicker of a gesture feels worthy of attention (her turn on HBO's Westworld is ample evidence). But A Worthy Companion takes itself too seriously; it's the movie equivalent of the cringingly overdressed party guest, all decked out in formal wear when ripped jeans and a funky top would've been just fine.

Wood plays Laura, a 30-year-old whose troubled ways are signposted by her chopped, bottle-blonde 'do, studded bracelet and black choker and also by a hostile, unsatisfying sexual encounter she has in the first scene ("You're no good to me if you're not hard," she snarls at her blindfolded partner). Employed through an agency run by her father (Denis O'Hare, giving off creepy dad vibes), Laura cleans houses in an unspecified North American suburb. One day on the job, she meets Eva (Stone), the prim, preppy 16-year-old daughter of a well-to-do client. Laura is instantly intrigued noticing, for example, that though she toils away at the piano practicing classical pieces, Eva has a Nirvana poster in her room. Before long the two are sharing joints in the back yard, with Laura in full seduction mode (her urging Eva to feel the goosebumps on her arm is a nice, queasy touch).

After a nasty fight with her uptight mother (Maxime Roy), Eva accepts an invitation to hang out at Laura's place after school; what she doesn't realize is that the smitten Laura has no intention of letting Eva leave after their home-made cocktails and heart-to-heart. When Eva catches on, she balks. But she soon settles into life with Laura, allowing herself to be drawn into a toxic relationship in which the older woman plays mother, big sister, erotic mentor and possessive girlfriend.

For a film that largely steers clear of captivity-thriller tropes and tricks aspiring, rather, to dramatic credibility A Worthy Companion demands major suspension of disbelief. Eva may be unhappy, but nothing in the way this dutiful ingenue is written or played suggests she'd be so amenable to ditching Mom, high school and life as she knows it to shack up with an unhinged femme fatale (even one as alluring as Laura); the girl's transition from Little Miss Perfect to pot-smoking, liquor-guzzling lesbian truant is whiplash-abrupt.

Laura's emotional journey is scarcely more persuasive. "We're soulmates," she whispers to Eva in bed, kissing her insistently (it's the one moment that flirts with camp, though the movie's tone is so grave you feel like you'd get your knuckles rapped for giggling) but what exactly draws Laura to Eva is never satisfactorily explored. Hints are provided via a clumsily handled parallel plotline about Laura's dysfunctional history with her father, as well as a few lines referring to previous fixations she's had on other women. Still, it's not enough to sustain our interest in this particular bond, which feels Laura's feverish declarations aside more convenient than urgent or deep.

Of course, none of that would matter much if A Worthy Companion had more juice if, failing to deliver on the plausibility front, it at least gave us a ripe drama of female obsession and codependency. But the movie unfolds with utmost solemnity, as if it would be distasteful for a story of abuse and trauma to stoop to entertain us.

The actresses certainly give it their all. Wood is vivid by turns aloof and itchingly needy and Stone (who, with her round face and sad saucer eyes, looks like a Pixar heroine) conveys the tremulous curiosity of an adolescent eager to break out of her shell. She also convincingly suggests Eva's discomfort with the sexual aspect of her relationship with Laura the element of the screenplay that rings truest, even if it's barely developed.

The film is enlivened from time to time by flashes of originality, like the all-too-briefly glimpsed character of Laura's rap-loving, wheelchair-bound brother, Benjamin (Joe Cobden). And the Sanchez brothers are skilled craftsmen, as indicated by their well-thought-out compositions, discreet camera moves and use of shallow depth of field to evoke the confines of Laura and Eva's rapidly shrinking world.

These guys clearly have talent; hopefully next time they'll have a bit of fun, too.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Production company: micro_scope
Writer-directors: Carlos and Jason Sanchez
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Julia Sarah Stone, Denis O'Hare, Maxime Roy, Joe Cobden
Producers: Luc Dery, Kim McCraw
Cinematographer: Sara Mishara
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Costume designer: Valerie Belegou
Editors: Jesse Riviere, Elisabeth Olga Tremblay
Original score: Olivier Alary
105 minutes


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