[Screen It]


(2021) (Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin) (R)

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Drama: An American man tries to prove that his estranged daughter, who's being held in a French prison, didn't kill her lover.

Bill Baker (MATT DAMON) is a laid-off Oklahoma oil industry roughneck who now works odd construction jobs when not flying to Marseille, France to visit his long-estranged daughter, Allison (ABIGAIL BRESLIN), who's in prison for allegedly killing her lover. While staying in a hotel, he ends up meeting theater actress Virginie (CAMILLE COTTIN) and her young daughter Maya (LILOU SIAUVAUD), which comes in handy when he needs someone to translate a letter Allison gave him, written in French and intended for her lawyer.

It turns out, Allison has learned that another person overheard a young man, Akim (IDIR AZOUGLI), state he killed Allison's lover, and the inmate wants her French lawyer to reopen the case. That attorney refuses, so Bill decides to take it upon himself to find the man, all while platonically moving in with Virginie and doing handyman work around her place. As he gets closer to finding Akeem, he ends up putting his safety and future at risk.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

As long as there are people who've been wrongly imprisoned -- or make claims to that effect -- I guess we'll have movies about such matters. But with each subsequent one, especially those set in America, filmmakers run the risk of delivering something that feels redundant as there are only so many ways to tell such tales.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy, along with co-scribes with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré, try to put a little bit of a spin on the usual plot by changing the usual status of the legal do-gooder and moving things overseas -- despite the title -- in "Stillwater."

It's named after the Oklahoma city where our protagonist, Bill Baker (Matt Damon), previously worked as an oil field roughneck but has recently found himself laid off and thus working odd jobs. While that's put a hit on his wallet, it does allow him more time to travel to France. Not for vacation, mind you, but to visit his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), who's imprisoned in Marseille for allegedly killing her lover while in college.

Having been long estranged from him, she isn't particularly pleased with his visits, but needs him this time around to deliver a letter to her lawyer. Unable to read French, he gets a new woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin), who he's recently met through her young daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), to translate for him. It turns out new information has come to Allison's attention regarding another young woman who heard that a young man, Akim (Idir Siauvaud), reportedly confessed to killing Allison's lover.

Unfortunately for Allison, such hearsay isn't enough to convince the lawyer to reopen the case and she informs Bill that false hope is a dangerous thing. Nevertheless, and deciding to take matters into his own hands, he lies to his daughter that the lawyer is working on it.

In reality, he then sets out to find the man and somehow obtain a DNA sample to give to a private investigator with connections in the police department. That alone could have fueled the film -- and perhaps cut down the overlong running time of 140 minutes -- but those behind the keyboard opted to throw in a budding romantic angle between the American outsider and the French woman.

While such material is usually superfluous for such stories, it's actually what works best for the film, along with Bill making up for being an absent father in the past by being a surrogate dad of sorts for the young girl.

The chemistry between the three is good -- as are the performances -- and I would have been satisfied by the story simply focusing on them and their somewhat unusual living and lifestyle arrangements. Alas, the "find the culprit" plot keeps interrupting that, and despite the intentions of all involved, it's the least interesting or engaging aspect of the offering. And things get increasingly ludicrous -- not to mention rushed -- toward the end of the third act as the dad goes to increasingly preposterous means to reach his end.

Good in parts, but ultimately doing nothing with the overly familiar material that serves as the backbone of the story, "Stillwater" ends up being something of a missed opportunity. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 19, 2021 / Posted July 30, 2021

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