Director: Claudia Llosa
Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy
2 (out of 5) Globes
There are challenging films that aren’t afraid to keep audiences in the dark, slowly parceling out information only to belatedly reward viewers’ patience and hard work. Then there’s “Aloft.” The English-language debut of Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa (“The Milk of Sorrow”), it’s so coy about its plot that one spends the majority of the film, nearly right to its end, unsure of what’s even happening. Even then it remains vague and mysterious, which is not the same as enticing. Part of this is by design, and part of it may be due to editorial snafus; the version hitting America has been shorn of some 20 minutes, so it's not clear if the editing was haphazard or if it was always a mess. No one will ever accuse “Aloft” of drowning in bald expository dialogue, but if there’s such a thing as being too obscure, “Aloft” is it.
Here’s what we can say for sure: Jennifer Connelly definitely plays Nana, a harried single mother of two boys, one who has cancer. She appears to be deadest on curing him by locating a potentially fraudulent (but maybe not!) faith healer (William Shimell). Intercut with this is a story set some two decades later, following her other, now adult son, Ivan (Cillian Murphy), who is estranged from his mom, who herself appears to be MIA for reasons not explained till much later. He reluctantly, grouchily agrees to the request of a documentary filmmaker (Melanie Laurent), who wants to find her while orchestrating a reunion between mother and son, or at least on that will devolve into an angry shout-fest.
In theory “Aloft” wants to do something interesting and noble: it wants to exist in in-between spaces, in an attempt to mirror the cloudy world our agitated characters find themselves in. But it’s sloppy. It’s not clear if this is our world and Nana is gullible about magical powers, or if it’s a version of our world with some magical powers. This makes getting even a basic footing hard, especially given that it’s played with heavy realism. Remove the business about art structures made of tree branches that can heal and “Aloft” is a gritty drama about an on-edge mom — played with real vulnerability by Connelly — that just happens to include cryptic magic, an Arctic journey and even some light falconry.
This should be the makings of an elusive art film, but “Aloft” is too plot-heavy, making the narrative confusion play more like work than a pleasure. There are melodramatic turns, plus some heavy-handed griping from Murphy, who admirably avoids being likable but never becomes interesting. Its study of trauma caused by parents never gets too take root because too much is going on, and not enough of it is grounded. Once all the pieces are finally lined up — give or take several unexplained bits — it only feels small, and all too willing to put children in harm’s way to goose the audience. You may not know what to make of “Aloft” for most of it, but once it arrives at a big climax that’s decidedly anti-, taking a wishy-washy stance is all but impossible.