There is a poignant moment about halfway through Lone Scherfig’s 10th feature film, The Kindness of Strangers, in theaters Feb. 14. Clara (Zoe Kazan) is at the end of her rope after escaping an abusive husband in upstate New York. She’s been wandering the streets of Manhattan with her two sons, looking for food, stealing money and struggling to find a place to sleep. Her son is in the hospital, her car has been towed, she has no marketable skills to find a job and she can’t call the police because her husband is a well-connected officer.
She finds herself in the kitchen of a Russian restaurant, pouring her heart out to the manager, Marc (Tahar Rahim), when staff member Timothey (Bill Nighy) enters the room and does about the most miraculous and kind thing a person can do when you’re as low and defeated as Clara: he makes her laugh.
The sound of her laughter after a painful 60 minutes showing her struggle to stay afloat feels like a lifeline – the idea that she can still laugh, that someone in a situation completely different from her own can enter her life for just a moment and make her forget her hunger, her pain, that her youngest son is in the hospital with hypothermia after spending the night outside, is a miracle. It’s a kindness. It’s in part thanks to Nighy, who brought ample laughter to Scherfig’s most recent directorial effort Their Finest (2017), my favorite film of that year. But it’s also just one of many acts of titular kindness that binds together Scherfig’s well-meaning feature.
With themes reminiscent of Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself (2019), The Kindness of Strangers follows New Yorkers who cross paths in the most dismal places – homeless shelters and hospitals are just a few. Both films are dark and attempt to package complex and profound themes about life and humanity in just two hours. But the intentions of Scherfig’s feature are good – despite its narrative flaws, it is not sad or tragic for its own sake, like so many independent films these days. If somewhat repetitively, it shows the pain we all face, but for a good reason – to show how even the smallest gestures can help us come out of it.
It’s the miracle of finding laughter in a restaurant kitchen when you think you’ll never laugh again that makes this film special. It’s the warm jacket offered by a homeless shelter volunteer who just lost his own job, who couldn’t pay his own rent – unbeknownst to the people he’s helping. Only the audience knows what’s really happening to sweet and simple Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones) – he has no one else to share it with.
Then there’s what the band Alabama would call “an angel among us” – Alice (Andrea Risenborough), who works as a nurse at the hospital, volunteers at the soup kitchen and runs a forgiveness support group – but carries the heavy burden of her own loneliness. She is the personification of a widely-shared Instagram-worthy quote: “Everyone you know is fighting a battle. Be kind always.” People post that sentiment on the Internet with pretty fonts and colorful backgrounds, then go about their days – walking past women like Clara on the street, thinking people like Alice and Jeff have it easy. This film attempts to actually take us inside that quote, to see it in action.
With a Valentine’s Day release date, The Kindness of Strangers tells a different kind of love story, with small acts that make big tragedies feel a little less heavy. Though Scherfig’s film can feel wobbly and repetitive at times, it’s the small acts of goodness and grace that can change people’s lives that are far more memorable than its clunky plot – especially if it inspires just one person to be better, kinder, more empathetic when they leave the theater.
It doesn’t have to be a bowl of soup or a place to stay. It can be as small as a hug. A jacket. A laugh.
© Georgiana E. Presecky (2/13/20) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Vertical Entertainment