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Jessica Chastain tells the heartfelt story of a thorny drama

Pain and trauma permeate Michel Franco’s new drama “Memory,” about two lost souls who find surprising solace in each other. Both Jessica Chastain’s Sylvia and Peter Sarsgaard’s Saul are hostages of their own minds, albeit in very different ways. Hers bothers him. His is failing quickly. And neither is completely reliable.

“Memory” begins as a seemingly standard “damaged person” movie, following Chastain’s Sylvia as she celebrates 12 years of sobriety at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting attended by her 12-year-old child. But there are layers to this dramatic mystery, compounded by unreliable narrators and moral gray areas. Before you know it, the movie transforms from something familiar to something completely unexpected.

Although not easily categorized, “Memory” is a thoughtful journey that includes fine performances from both Chastain and Sarsgaard, who won best actor at last fall’s Venice Film Festival. While there are moments of levity to ease the pain, it can also come with a laundry list of trigger warnings as it explores difficult topics, from sexual abuse to mental illness, in rather unsatisfying ways. Maybe it’s a good thing the holidays are over, because this isn’t something to watch with family, especially when the family is harboring its own secrets that have turned into intergenerational trauma.

The film initially connects you to Sylvia, a social worker and single mother who is suspicious of everything and everyone. He always seems ready to escape for safety and survival. She lives by a strict routine: walking her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) to school, attending an adult day care, and AA meetings. The house is a castle: As soon as the underdog steps into his apartment, he locks the door three times and enters the security code to activate the place.

Despite knowing him so little, it’s surprising that his younger sister Olivia (Merritt Wever) is able to convince him to attend a high school reunion-style event early in the film. The decision seems even more incomprehensible when you learn additional details about Sylvia’s school years, but it is clear that she was uncomfortable and unhappy with the activity, from which she would soon leave.

For a moment, you wonder if her fears and concerns were justified that night when she realizes a man was following her home, first down the street, then onto the same subway car, and then at the same spot, right on her doorstep. . Looking for your keys looks like a nightmare. You hold your breath until he comes in. Hours later, the man is still outside, staring at her. Did he dream? A dream? Your ex? A foreigner?

The man in question is Saul, who he learns has early-onset dementia. He won’t remember following her home or why, but he will remember her for whatever reason. Her brother Isaac (Josh Charles) asks if Sylvia would like to work for them as Saul’s friend.

And Saul and Sylvia develop a deep bond with each other that transcends professional caregiver boundaries. Both are damaged and long for connection, and their friendship is a balm until it turns into something else. Without going into too much detail, this relationship presents an ethical dilemma that the film doesn’t seem willing to seriously grapple with, leaving “Memory” feeling underdeveloped at best. Worst of all, he’s not even sure what he’s trying to say. This movie has one of those endings that makes it seem happy but leaves a lingering feeling of fear and anxiety for everyone involved.

Movies can be empathy machines, and they can also be a kind of therapy, giving viewers permission to step into a stranger’s shoes and feel things that might otherwise seem too difficult, too extreme, too much.

Sarsgaard does a great job portraying this man who has been dealt a terrible card, whose body is still functioning but his mind is unreliable. Hers isn’t the only one: Sylvia’s memory is also flawed. As do her family members, like her compartmentalizing mother, played perfectly by Jessica Harper. It all turns into misery, secrets and shame.

This movie reminds us that memory may be imperfect, but emotions rarely are.

“Memory” – 2½ stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (nudity, some sexual content, language)

Running time: 110 minutes

How to watch: In theaters January 5

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