Clara, a sci-fi film, won the Jury Best Narrative Feature award at the Austin Film Festival. The festival, which ran October 25 – November 1, screened more than 180 films, and brought screenwriters and filmmakers together to celebrate the role of the screenplay in film and television.
Clara, written by Akash Sherman (The Rocket List) and James Ewasiuk, and directed by Sherman, introduces us to an obsessed astronomer and a curious artist. They form an unlikely bond which leads to an amazing discovery.
My initial reaction to the description of the film was, “Sounds like Big Bang Theory, without the laughs.” It even takes place in some of the same locations. Upon leaving the theater, however, my comparison had changed to “2001: A Space Odyssey for the new century.” The film is also a case study on how to tell back-story visually, without fake-sounding dialog. Clara should be required viewing at every film school.
Patrick J. Adams (Suits) plays astronomer Dr. Isaac Bruno, who has become so obsessed and cynical with his research into the search for the existence of extra-terrestrial life, that he has let it ruin his marriage and professional life. His cynicism spills over into his teaching and gets him suspended from his professorship.
Then he meets Clara, played by Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars), a world-wandering and somewhat world-weary artist. Bruno recruits Clara as a research assistant and they form an uneasy partnership. Clara is as spiritual as Bruno is skeptical. Their conversations regarding life and its meaning touch on universal themes that will touch anyone who sees the film.
The importance of making contact with alien life mirrors the importance of making contact with people right here on earth. The past that both characters have that makes this contact difficult is revealed by subtle, sometimes heart-rendering clues. Birth and death are elements of the story.
Light moments in the film are provided by Ennis Esmer (Blindspot) who plays Bruno’s co-worker and confidant, Dr. Charlie Durant. Esmer kept reminding me of the TV-pitch man who sells a product for patching leaks.
Kristen Hager (Condor, The Kennedys: Decline and Fall), who plays Bruno’s ex, also gives an excellent performance.
The film is science fiction, but the science part is so accurate and well researched by screenwriter Akash Sherman that it created enough buzz among astronomers to warrant an article in Scientific American (The Scientific American story contains some minor spoilers, so you might want to hold off on reading it until after you see the movie). The science, and a critical element in the plot, revolves around TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). TESS takes pictures and sends back data which upon analysis can reveal the existence of planets around stars. Astronomers believe finding Earth-like planets is critical to finding other life in the universe.
Clara made me think about 2001:A Space Odyssey. This film does not have incredible special effects and span eons as Kubrick’s classic does. It does, however, deal with similar philosophical themes and music plays meaningful parts in both films. 2001 had Stausses (Richard and Johann) and “Daisy”. Clara has Vivaldi and Bob Dylan. In Clara music ties even more closely into the plot.