As a performer, playing stiff and awkward seems to come naturally to Will Forte. It informed several of his characters during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, his appearances as Randy on How I Met Your Mother, and even “Fortin’ With Will” on Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It takes little to turn him into a square everyman, and his laconic character in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska showed his stiffness can work in more dramatic settings.
Forte shot Nebraska after Run & Jump, the debut feature of director Steph Green (who earned an Oscar nomination in 2009 for her short “New Boy”) and Forte’s first foray into full-on drama. This time he’s a stiff American neuropsychologist named Ted staying with the family of a man in Ireland who’s suffered a rare type of stroke. After a month in a coma and four months of rehab, Conor (Edward MacLiam) returns home to his young family and vivacious wife, Vanetia (a luminous Maxine Peake), who must accept that the man they knew will never come back. Ted maintains a professional distance at first, but Vanetia’s welcoming big-heartedness quickly makes him a sort of auxiliary family member—and, as time passes, maybe more.
Green shows the shift in Ted’s role through the camera; for the first third or so, Run & Jump has numerous POV shots from Ted’s camcorder as he documents Conor’s life at home. Those shots disappear as the film progresses and Ted’s connection to the family becomes much more personal. Green also employs small details to show the family’s shaky financial situation, like Vanetia’s boxy non-smartphone or the faulty tape adapter she uses to play music in the cassette player of her aged Volvo (whose rear bumper is attached with a bungee cable).
Other images aren’t as subtle, like when Conor’s mother smashes a birdhouse he made for his parents, each of whom is represented as a wooden figure in the house. A subplot involving the sexuality of Vanetia and Conor’s teenage son would seem extraneous, except that it directly informs the newfound hostility Conor has for him. MacLiam’s portrayal of Conor reads more as severely autistic, though very few people would know how someone with this type of brain injury would behave. Peake’s character feels the most lived in, a woman whose natural optimism is in danger of calcifying into delusion, were it not for Ted to remind her of reality. Forte’s strength in playing awkward characters works to his advantage.
His relationship with Vanetia goes from standoffish to inspiring town gossip a little quickly, feeling more like plot device than natural progression. It doesn’t take long for Vanetia’s friends and in-laws to suspect her intentions with her new pal, and the inevitable “What are you up to?” confrontation feels perfunctory. The relationship plays out realistically, making up for those moments that ring less true, resolving in a way that answers some questions but leaves others unresolved.