Winner of a FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s just wrapped Toronto International Film Festival, in Heather Young’s feature length debut Murmur we get an up-close view of Donna, a middle-aged woman doing community service at an animal shelter as part of her sentence for a DUI charge.
Young’s ability to tell a story through limited dialogue is astonishing. Before Donna even speaks, we see her through the most mundane of tasks. As she smokes an e-cigarette incessantly, we discover she had an alcohol problem, a bad relationship with her daughter, and she’s lonely. Donna finds solace in her interactions with animals at the shelter and adopting a dog slated for euthanasia. The scraggly mutt she adopts serves as a metaphor for Donna; both unwanted and killing time.
Newcomer Shan MacDonald plays Donna with an air of realism one can only really command from a first time actor with limited training. The result is a near perfect performance that alternates between sad and heart-breaking. It’s impossible to not root for Donna even as she slips into Grey Gardens territory.
Deceptively, it would be easy to pass off Murmur as a simple film about a woman with no one in her life and a penchant for sick animals. Zooming out though, Young touches on mother-daughter relationships, animal euthanasia, and how we treat society’s disadvantaged.
Young asks some thought-provoking questions. Is Donna a bad person for attempting to care for animals rather than having them put down? Do we care enough for convicts once they are out of the criminal justice system? Yet Murmur dances around all these questions without answering any of them.
Although Murmur is a slow burn, it is fascinating to watch a young creative filmmaker like Young begin their career. Time will tell what other stories she has in store for us, but if Murmur is a sign, we’re in for a ride.
Murmur written and directed by Heather Young. A Houseplant Films production. As part of the 2019 Atlantic International Film Festival. No further screenings.