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There are two stories being told in Stillwater, one well, the other other not so well. Unfortunately for all concerned, it’s the one that’s told not so well that the film insists it’s all about, from its title all the way through to its concluding scenes.

At 2 hours 19 minutes you’d have thought that there was time to give both stories a fair screw, but clearly something has happened between greenlighting and debut. That “something” might be lawyers, given what it’s about.

Because it’s a loose adaptation of the Amanda Knox story. This was the messy and unsatisfyingly concluded case of the young American woman found guilty of killing a fellow exchange student, Meredith Kercher, in Italy in 2007. Knox was found guilty, then later exonerated because she was innocent. Or perhaps she was the victim of a botched investigation by the Italian police. Or maybe she was set free simply because she was a) American and b) hot – she wasn’t called Foxy Knoxy by the tabloid papers for nothing. Messy.

Abigail Breslin plays the Knox avatar, Allison Baker, banged up in a French jail for the murder of her lover, with Matt Damon as Bill Baker, the dad who has come out to try and do some investigating of his own now that officialdom has lost interest in the case.

Breslin Schmeslin, It could be anyone playing Allison, Breslin gets so little screen time, and in fact Allison’s story is all but abandoned in the central section, when Bill leans on a single mother for help with his non-existent French language skills and winds up becoming close to the woman and her cute daughter.

The fact that it’s Matt Damon as Bill is enough, isn’t it, to suggest that the film is more about him than his daughter. It is satisfyingly about him too, don’t get me wrong. Damon is really rather fantastic as the tattooed, god-fearing, respectful (many a “yes, ma’am”), hard-working meat-and-potatoes Oklahoma rigger who’s made a mess of family life first time round and is delighted, if loathe to admit it, to be given a second crack at it with the lithe, bubbly, compassionate and keen Virginie.

It’s Camille Cottin as Virginie, who you might know from the brilliant French TV dramedy Call My Agent, where she was a tough-nut actors’ agent in dog-eat-dog Paris. Her character then wasn’t anything like Virginie, though Cottin pulls off the switch, while staying recognisably herself. (Incidentally, given how brilliant everyone in that show was, it is slightly mystifying that it’s Cottin who’s done so well out of it – must have a good agent).

Bill and Maya
Bill and Maya

Cute kid Maya is played by Lilou Siauvaud, and what a loose and plausible miracle she is as the eight/nine-year-old child who, really, takes Bill under her wing and then forces maman to do the same.

There’s a third story too, which would link the Allison and the Virginie strands, if there was enough of the Allison strand, and that’s of bluff Bill, in full “I’m an American citizen, dammit” mode, charging about banging heads, trying to interrogate locals to find out what happened to his daughter, and locate a guy called Akim (Idir Azougli), who might be the key to it all.

Meanwhile, though it’s never stated out loud, French cultural superiority is quietly asserted throughout, with Bill becoming a better, more civilised person as he drops his boorish American ways and takes on aspects of French culture – a glass of wine, a trip to the theatre, turning off the damn TV when he’s eating his dinner.

Tom McCarthy knows how to write and direct offbeat relationship dramas (The Station Agent, the film that made Peter Dinklage’s name) and he knows how to write and direct urgent procedurals (like Spotlight, about Boston Globe reporters revealing the complicity of the Catholic Church in child abuse). Stillwater has aspects of both – Bill forging a new surrogate family with Virginie and Maya and Bill private-eyeing his way round a Marseille that doesn’t want to speak to him.

Stillwater it’s called, after the town Bill and Allison come from, and it’s that one word, Stillwater, that eventually provides the key to unlocking the truth of the Allison Baker case, which McCarthy picks up again towards the end, hoping maybe that we won’t have noticed that Allison is little more than a Maguffin in Bill’s story. Given its high profile, why McCarthy went for the Knox story at all, only to use it as little more than window dressing, is a puzzler.

Stillwater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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