As a film composed entirely of nine continuous long takes, Nine Lives certainly qualifies as unique. But what makes it rarer and more auspicious is that it offers such a rich bounty of great roles for middle-aged women. Given the dearth of quality parts for actresses beyond a certain age, is it any wonder that director (and ace cinematic miniaturist) Rodrigo Garciá managed to snag such big names as Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, Robin Wright Penn, Dakota Fanning, Kathy Baker, and Amy Brenneman for a low-budget independent film with seemingly limited commercial prospects? As he's proven with this film, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, and Ten Tiny Love Stories, Garciá loves and respects women, and they've repaid that devotion with uniformly fine work.
In both form and content, Nine Lives feels like a continuation and extension of 2001's Ten Tiny Love Stories, which similarly delved deep into the emotional lives of women with vignettes that at best suggested the cinematic equivalent of superb short stories. The earlier film was composed of monologues captured by long static takes, but here the camera moves about freely to document multi-character stories.
In the strongest of the nine, Robin Wright Penn plays a pregnant mother and wife who unexpectedly bumps into an ex-boyfriend she shared an intense, passionate life with years earlier. Penn's performance and Garciá's incisive writing beautifully capture the excruciating awkwardness of people desperately trying to find a feasible middle ground between the primal emotional intimacy they once shared and the forced civility and strained politeness of people accidentally reconnecting after years apart. Their conversation accordingly slides between arbitrary small talk and heady discussion about the Big Issues that defined their lives and relationship. Several of the other stories explore similar issues and dynamics, particularly the one in which an angry, estranged sister and daughter returns to her family home to hurl accusations, reopen old wounds, and stew in bitterness, much to the discomfort of her more accommodating, conciliatory younger sister.
Not every vignette succeeds. Some end abruptly or never quite catch fire, while still others indulge in short-story writers' weakness for big dramatic gestures, but even the weakest stories are brilliantly acted by actresses who tear into Garciá's juicy roles with gusto. Nine Lives is admittedly a women's movie for the arthouse set, but the sensitivity and intensity Garciá brings to it suggests that's not inherently a bad thing. If only every women's movie had Nine Lives' fire, intelligence, and conviction, they wouldn't have such a shaky reputation in the first place.