Mile Zero

Mile Zero is a challenging, extraordinarily complex movie about a father who loses his mind trying to create the perfect family unit. Canadian cinema is now famous (or should be) for its seemingly endless supply of intriguingly offbeat premises, with an impressive ratio of those being executed with workmanlike efficiency and meticulous finesse. This entry into the Maple Leaf’s repertoire is considerably more than that, an intense character study that sometimes, without warning, turns into a rather potent suspenser. Unforgivable that this little gem, better than 90% of “arthouse” flicks, will not get a theatrical release.

Derek (Michael Riley) picks up his son Will (Connor Widdows) from school one day and tells him that they’re going on a road trip, that they are to meet up with his mother at a later, unspecified point, that for a while they’re going to have a great time together, just a father and his son. In reality, it’s a kidnapping; Derek’s wife (Sabrina Grdevich) kicked him out of the house months before, no longer being able to stand his suffocating vision of familial love. Since then, she’s moved in with a new boyfriend, a stand-up guy named Peter, and, on a visit to Derek’s new apartment, she is shocked to find that he hasn’t even gotten a bed for Will to sleep in on weekend visits.

The trip escalates from a mildly shady little event to a downright frightening situation, as it becomes increasingly clear that Derek isn’t in control of his faculties and will go to any lengths — including murder — to achieve his deranged father-son utopia, his misguided protectiveness of his son often rolling over into a confused violence. The action is intercut with Derek’s home video footage, and we learn that warning signs of his present ailment manifested themselves when Will was still a baby.

The premise of Mile Zero is fascinatingly original; there have been all kinds of “mental illness” movies, but rarely ones this detailed or this interesting. Director Andrew Currie isn’t satisfied with simply reducing his subject to a caricature, a one-note walking disease meant to either evoke sympathy or make the audience recoil in disgust or fear. Derek is a stunningly multi-faceted character, a unique combination of intense love and dangerous volatility. His intentions are generally noble, and he truly believes that his wife and her new boyfriend are maliciously trying to break apart the Edenic bliss of his former familial unit. He is Don Quixote.

Michael Riley, who’s had bit parts in movies like Amistad and French Kiss turns in an astounding lead performance. He is in almost every scene, and his descent into madness is convincingly gradual, becoming first unsettling and then, in the film’s later scenes, difficult to watch. Connor Widdows, a remarkable child actor, should generate good word-of-mouth for himself with his frighteningly genuine, completely believable supporting turn. The role requires that the pint-sized actor act, not just look adorable, and Widdows succeeds admirably.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the ending, which suggests (SPOILER WARNING) that it’s possible for Derek and Will to turn around and head back home and pretend like nothing happened. No. The movie puts its characters through far too much for us to believe a resolution as pat as that. (This recalls the otherwise wonderful French movie Ponette, which concluded a little girl’s heartwrenching journey to accept her mother’s death with a dream sequence in which her mother’s ghost comes back to play with her.) But this is a minor imperfection that comes at the end of a strange, unique, rewarding film.

-- Eugene Novikov

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