(Written by Allison Brown)
Stillwater, a town in Oklahoma, serves as the locale of origin, as well as a key device in the climax, for this aptly titled movie from Focus Features. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, the film offers up Bill Baker (Matt Damon) as an all-American, southern caricature (fitted with the tackiest of goatees) and immediately relocates him as a fish out of water to Marseille. In this city in the south of France, his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), is serving up year five of a nine-year prison sentence for killing her college girlfriend, Lina. Despite the media penning her a “devilish lesbian American,” she claims she has been wrongly imprisoned and can prove it! Through word of mouth from her professor of outreach, Dr. Patrick Okenedo (William Nadylam), we discover that a mysterious young Arab man, Akim (Idir Azougli), has been bragging at parties that he stabbed a girl years ago and got away with it! Could this be the same guy that Allison met at a bar that ill-fated night?
Bill is a simple god-fearing man, working by day as a construction worker and an all-around handyman, completing odd jobs to get by. He owns two guns: a “shotgun and a glock.” He drives a pickup truck, listens to country music, and proudly wears a tattoo of a bald eagle “because America!” He didn’t vote for Trump, but that was a result of his imprisonment; he was unable to vote at all. The only traits missing in his stereotypical characterization are racism and homophobia. Thankfully, he seems to be fully supportive of Allison, despite her sexual orientation. Following the suicide of his wife, Bill was an absent father; Allison’s spunky grandmother, Sharon (Deanna Dunagan), had to step in and take over parental duties. With a past infused with alcoholism, drugs, and child neglect, Bill Baker should be utterly unlikable, but McCarthy’s depiction makes him nearly impossible not to love. He really wants to do better and be better!
In prison (where she is strangely dressed as a civilian), Allison implores Bill to deliver a meticulously crafted letter to her lawyer, Leparq (Anne Le Ny). She wishes to reopen her case in light of new evidence provided, and to test Akim’s DNA for a match to the crime scene. Bill dutifully follows, but Leparq and her firm fervently decline to help. “There’s a time for hope and a time for acceptance.” This rejection, as well of the hefty price of private detectives, sparks Bill’s journey to uncover the truth. He takes matters into his own hands, while continuously lying to his daughter, with the help of a friendly hotel neighbor, Virginie (Camille Cottin).
In observing the initial chance meeting of Bill and Virginie, one would never assume they would become nearly family as the film progresses. Bill awakes from a deep sleep in his hotel (where he initially only plans to stay two weeks) to loud music blasting from outside. He walks to the balcony and asks the women drinking to quiet down; they mockingly retort that they don’t speak English. One of them is Virginie, a single mother and theatre actress, who is at the hotel as she moves between apartments.
They meet again once Bill returns her daughter, Maya (Lilou Siauvaud), whom he initially found bouncing a ball, then later sitting in the hall without a key card. Virginie thanks him, but hilariously exclaims, “my English came back to me,” when caught in her earlier lie. Virginie and Bill quickly bond as she reads Allison’s letter back to him, and Virginie becomes fully ensnared in the case. She acts as his translator in meeting with key witnesses, eventually becomes his roommate, and later more. Their spontaneous encounter (as well as a manipulation of hotel staff to get their new address) leads Bill on the path to self-improvement.
It is clear that Bill is looking for a second chance in raising a daughter through his fatherly affection for Maya. He is “just trying to do it right.” He buys her gifts, helps her brush her teeth, lets her assist in his work, cooks for her, and in effect, becomes her proxy father. In return, Maya teaches him French. All this, despite a mostly platonic relationship between Bill and her mother. Their love for each other is incredibly believable, and Damon and Siauvaud’s chemistry is undeniable. Every time Maya says, “Bye Bill,” my heart melted. The two relationships are so earnestly tender and become the lifeblood of Stillwater, until Bill does something unforgivable to mess it all up.
Stillwater becomes multiple films in one by its point of completion. Its winding and weaving plot consistently keeps the audience intrigued and invested (despite the 2 hours and 18 minutes long runtime) through its warm-hearted love story, juxtaposed father-daughter narrative between Bill and Allison/Maya, legal drama tale of proving innocence, high stakes long-form thriller/mystery chase to expose Akim, and later in the game, a crime within a crime. The film’s theme, in effect, becomes “life is brutal,” for both Allison and her father.
Upon discovering Stillwater from the Cannes lineup, I couldn’t help but get excited that one of the main characters, Abigail Breslin’s Allison, and I share a name with even the same spelling. That alone allowed me to sympathize with her and hope for her innocence from the get-go! The narrative definitely focuses on how Bill is affected by the ordeal, more than Allison herself, which was an insightful perspective to distinguish Stillwater from any old courtroom drama. Aside from learning that she is a smoker and went to Aixe Marseille University to study because “it was far away and completely different” from Stillwater, we don’t learn much else about her as a person. This seems deliberate to keep the audience guessing until the final reveal.
I was fascinated to see the film’s parallels to the high-profile 2007 Amanda Knox case, where she was incarcerated for a similar girl-on-girl murder in college, except in Italy. She claimed her innocence until she was finally acquitted. Tom McCarthy cited this as inspiration for the script.
Stillwater uncovers the truth in theatres on Friday, July 30th.