With a long puff on an e-cigarette, we meet Donna, a woman with a love of red wine and not much else. But beneath the cloud of vapor and bottles of alcohol lies a deeply sad person who is searching for some larger purpose. Shot like a documentary with a careful and thoughtful gaze, Heather Young’s directorial debut Murmur is a gorgeous, yet heart-breaking, film about addiction, loneliness, and trying to feel loved.
Donna (Shan MacDonald) is a recovering alcoholic who was recently convicted of driving while drunk. She is ordered to complete community service, which she does at a local animal shelter. There, she finds joy in motherless kittens and sad senior dogs. As she scrubs their cages and files down their toys’ sharp edges, she is able to feel useful; she can finally take care of something and feel loved in return. She particularly connects with a sick dog named Charlie who has a slew of medical conditions including a heart murmur. Donna believes she can give him the best life possible in his remaining months. But, once she gets a taste of being a caretaker, it spirals into another addiction that bleeds into her need for alcohol. She brings home cats, dogs, hamsters, and fish until her home is covered in pets.
Donna sees herself in each of these pets. They are animals that are being given away on Facebook or Craigslist, or shelter pets that are about to be euthanized. They are unwanted or aging, being thrown away. Donna wants to be their savior, someone who will love and care for them no matter what. It is an admirable desire, but the film asks the question, is this for the animals or for Donna’s self-esteem? Her intentions are good but they ultimately only lead to more problems.
It is a tragic story told with care by Young in a style akin to Chloe Zhao’s The Rider. The camera is an observer, relishing in moments of silence as Donna sits on the couch watching TV or reloads her e-cigarette liquid. We are meant to really look at Donna and develop an emotional connection with her. Young emphasizes this further by never showing who Donna is talking to. When she speaks with her counselor or her boss at the animal shelter, the camera only focuses on Donna as she listens and processes information. Young is not interested in sensationalizing the story or creating unnecessary action. Instead, Murmur is meant to be a quiet film about a heart-breaking subject, an in-depth character study about a woman who has led a hard life and just wants to be better.
McDonald’s performance sells Murmur as it feels like a documentary about her life. She seems slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera at times, which lends to an air of authenticity. She isn’t a professional actor, like the rest of the cast, which furthers that air of truth-telling. Donna’s face looks tired, her eyes constantly conveying an air of exhaustion. However, this all changes when she’s around Charlie or any of her other pets. She has found purpose with these animals and her demeanor completely changes as a result. Her voice raises an octave, her smile reaches her eyes, and she seems like a whole new person. McDonald embodies the transformation beautifully.
Murmur is a quiet and introspective film and an impressive debut from Young. Her ability to marry documentary and fiction techniques creates an emotional journey that will devastate the viewer. It isn’t an uplifting film by any means, but it is an important one that shows another side to addiction, one that isn’t sensationalized and full of spectacle. Rather, Young treats her subject/character with respect and care, making sure to convey their emotional state without trying to manipulate them or the audience. Young is a promising Canadian filmmaker whose style and gaze is necessary in the world of cinema.
You may check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here.