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D: Brian Shoaf / 89m

Cast: Zachary Quinto, Jenny Slate, Sheila Vand, Jon Hamm

Josh Norman (Quinto) has his fair share of issues – more, actually – and most of them relate to the strained relationship he has with his brother, Craig (Hamm). When he was nineteen, Josh suffered a psychotic break, and since then he’s been on a variety of medications for a variety of undiagnosed afflictions. In recent years, Josh has come to believe that Craig visits him from time to time, and in disguise as his latest role (and even if it’s an elderly homeless lady). Josh is aware that he is ill, and so he seeks out Emily Milburton (Slate), a licensed clinical support worker, to help him with his problems. Emily correctly identifies that much of what ails Josh stems from unresolved issues to do with Craig, but is unable to get Josh to face them – or Craig, who appears at Emily’s door one night. He and Emily begin a relationship, while Josh finds a measure of solace in a burgeoning romance with Hannah (Vand), with whom he goes for long walks. But Emily’s efforts to reconcile the two brothers aren’t as successful as she hopes they’ll be, and her own relationship with Craig suffers as a result…

The debut feature of writer/director Brian Shoaf, Aardvark is a curious beast (pun intended) that is likely to test the patience of viewers as they wait for Shoaf to work out just what it is he’s trying to say, and to put more than two scenes together that are organically linked. This is a meandering, focus-lite movie that generates a modicum of polite interest in its characters, all of whom interact with each other as if they’re meeting for the first time. It’s like a version of Chinese Whispers where no one deliberately pays any attention to what the other person is saying, and misconceptions and misunderstandings abound as a natural result. In Josh this would make sense as his perceptions are skewed anyway, but there’s no excuse for Emily, a therapist who is so obtuse that when her skill as a therapist is brought into question, you want to shout out, “Finally!” Perhaps Shoaf wants us to feel more sympathy for Emily than for Josh, and that would be fine if she weren’t so poorly defined as a character. Slate does what she can, but as Emily is called upon to look bewildered a lot of the time, perhaps it’s a more perfect meld of actress and role than expected.

As Josh, Quinto does well in portraying his character’s dissociative tendencies, and he does a nice line in wounded perplexity, but it’s still a performance that relies on the actor’s input rather than the script’s, or Shoaf’s imprecise direction. Josh’s friendship with Hannah also suffers, coming across at first as a staple meet-cute of romantic dramas but with added mental illness to help it stand out, something that doesn’t happen anyway thanks to Hannah’s status as a cypher and Josh’s judgmental narcissism. But Shoaf really scores an own goal with Craig, a character who appears to have all the answers for Josh’s condition, but is used more as a convenient plot device than a credible protagonist (you have to ask at what point Shoaf thought putting Emily and Craig together was ever a good idea). Stilted and frustrating, the movie wanders around in various directions without ever settling on a simple, straightforward through line, and by the end, all of the characters have been undermined for the sake of narrative expediency, and an ending that feels detached from what’s gone before. And the aardvark of the title? Hmmm…

Rating: 4/10 – an indie drama that plays at being smart and contemplative while missing the mark by a country mile, Aardvark is an awkwardly assembled reminder that good intentions alone don’t make a movie; a good cast can’t save this from being anything more than a curiosity, and even then, that curiosity is unlikely to be satisfied.

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