I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fourth time. I’ll be seeing as many movies as I can and offering reviews throughout the week.
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to an older loved one. It’s likely that most would cherish the opportunity to extend their time with someone they have lost. Technological advances have already helped to lengthen the average life span and cure a number of diseases, but there are surely even more innovative ways to prolong life coming in the future. “Marjorie Prime” imagines one such scenario where holographic versions of deceased people are available to aid their loved ones in coping with their loss, presenting an incredible privilege plagued with ethical questions.
Marjorie (Lois Smith) is an older woman whose husband Walter died years earlier. She spends her days mostly alone, but has recently found comfort in the form of Walter Prime (Jon Hamm), a projection of her dead husband at a much younger age. Walter Prime asks questions about Walter’s life and Marjorie’s experiences, digesting the details and absorbing her stories as fact. When she suggests something should have been different, he replies that he’ll remember it that way next time. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) have conflicting feelings about the existence of Walter Prime and what it means for Marjorie, and both explore their own relationships with this reimagined relic of the past.
Before a screening of his film at the Sundance Film Festival, director Michael Almereyda shared that people had called the movie a meditation. “It’s not a meditation, it’s a movie,” he joked, adding that the pace is not quick and he did not want audiences to have false expectations. This film features only its four main characters, immersed in deep dialogue with each other about what they’ve been through and, occasionally, what’s coming next. Based on the Pulitzer-nominated play from Jordan Harrison, also starring Smith, this film definitely brings up a lot of quandaries about what keeping someone’s memory alive means if it’s taken very literally. Davis likens it to interrupting the grieving process and halting it permanently at denial.
During a roundtable interview at Sundance, Almereyda, Hamm, and Davis all point to Smith as the driving force of the project. Hamm says that, to play Walter Prime, he did not look at other portrayals of robotic versions of people, but instead tried to be as neutral as possible. He noted that there is ideally an evolution as the prime gathers more information and becomes more effective in his portrayal, and that it is a challenge to do nothing and be interesting. He said that he shaped Walter Prime as a good listener, which was convenient since Smith’s Marjorie was such a good talker.
Smith, who has been starring in films since the 1970s, hits a career high with this rich, honest performance of a woman who still has her bearings and knows who she is but is also more than happy to indulge the actualized – and romanticized – memory of her late husband. Hamm, Davis, and Robbins play off her portrayal wonderfully to create nuanced characters still trying to get to know themselves. The script is full of stirring dialogue and meditative ideas, brought together in a haunting – and at times surprisingly funny – exploration of what it means to live.