REVIEW: ‘Through the Glass Darkly’ (2020) is an Intriguing Small Town Mystery

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In spite of a few missteps, Through the Glass Darkly manages to keep
viewers on their toes, presenting them with an intriguing small town mystery.

Like many film festivals in 2020, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ film exhibition event, Frameline, went digital for its forty-fourth year. The festival’s centerpiece Through the Glass Darkly, the narrative feature debut of lesbian filmmaker Lauren Fash, had its world premiere through at the festival this past Saturday. Inspired by her own grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Fash tells the story of a woman named Charlie (Robyn Lively) whose recent diagnosis with the progressively debilitating disease hasn’t stopped her from searching for her missing daughter, Lily (Kinsley Isla Dillon), a year after her disappearance. When another young girl goes missing and receives news coverage, Charlie is convinced that the cases are linked, and begins her own investigation alongside a journalist named Amy (Shanola Hampton) to discover the truth.

The film is set in Elrod, Georgia, a sleepy southern town that seems to rarely see any major progress. It’s a place where everybody knows each other, particularly Mama Carmichael (Judith Ivey) and her son, Trip (Michael Trucco), whose financial status has allowed them to run the town for generations. The stagnant nature of the town becomes the perfect backdrop for the narrative’s constant play with time and memory, further blurring the lines between past and present for both the viewer and the film’s protagonist. It also allows for the film’s small moments of social commentary, as the lead’s sexuality is shown to be at odds with the small town’s old-fashioned values. 

The representation of sexuality in Through the Glass Darkly feels refreshingly unique and authentic – the main character is a lesbian – but this is a fact that rarely affects the film’s narrative. Small moments, such as a remembered conversation Charlie has with Lily in which she asks her not to call her partner “Mama” when they’re in public, indicate that the town is not accepting of her sexuality or relationship, but this bigotry does not directly come into play in any significant way. Instead, we hear subtle jabs – when she goes to meet someone related to the case at a strip club, a character questions her coming there, and, later in the film, another character asks prying questions about Lily’s parentage. These moments acknowledge the fact that Charlie is seen as an “other” in the small town she inhabits without making her entire story revolve around that otherness – a trap which many LGBTQ+ films that have preceded Through the Glass Darkly unfortunately fell into.

In addition to its representation of sexuality, Fash’s film also attempts to present a first-hand depiction of Alzheimer’s through its main character. Through flashbacks, fragmented memories, imagined scenarios, and bits of narration we learn Charlie’s story as she experiences (and re-experiences) it. This method of storytelling sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, with the narration in particular often feeling like unnecessary punctuation to moments already clearly laid out by the film’s visuals. 

The strangest aspect of Charlie’s on-screen mental deterioration by far, however, is the imagined scenario of her finding Lily, which is repeated throughout the film as she gets closer to revealing the truth. Although the sequences conceptually make sense for a grieving mother losing her grip on reality, the tense musical cues and dark color palettes, along with the lingering voice of Charlie’s daughter, make them feel more like scenes from a horror movie than the delusions of a desperate woman who has lost her child. As scenes in a thriller, they do an adequate job of ramping up the tension in the film, but contextually they just feel a bit too tonally awkward.

In spite of a few missteps, Through the Glass Darkly manages to keep viewers on their toes, presenting them with an intriguing small town mystery teeming with smart twists and turns. The film’s editing and visuals are consistently engaging, often mirroring our unreliable narrator’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and lucid mania, and act wonderfully alongside the exceptional, emotion-filled performance given by the film’s lead.

Although Through the Glass Darkly does not have concrete plans for distribution at the time of this article, it will definitely be a film to look out for in the upcoming year.

Director: Lauren Fash

Cast: Robyn Lively, Shanola Hampton, Michael Trucco, Judith Ivey (…)

Release Date: TBD

Tickets are available for all US residents to stream Through the Glass Darkly at Frameline44 until Sunday, September 27, 2020.

Header image courtesy of Frameline