Expect Sigourney Weaver to receive an Oscar nod for her work in The Girl in the Park, which got a warm reception at this year's Toronto fest. Weaver plays Julia Sandburg, a 40-something business executive and mother of two, including a toddler named Maggie. Julia's life, which we can sense has been planned down to the smallest detail, is unexpectedly shipwrecked when, during routine playtime in a park one day, Maggie goes missing under her nose. The child is not found, and her disappearance is tied to a string of similar abductions in the area, leaving practically no hope. Cut to fifteen years later -- Julia now looks to be in her late 50s and has spent the last fifteen years living a solitary, robotic existence, the disappearance having disintegrated her marriage, poisoned her relationship with her remaining child, and taken a toll on her mental health. Existing more or less as a shut-in these past years, her own relatives, including her son and new daughter-in-law, can hardly believe it when she turns up at a family function.
The son and daughter-in-law, played by Alessandro Nivola and Keri Russell, are budding suburbanites who are planning for a new child and have no intention of living their lives in the past, but the past is the only place Julia feels safe, and there seems to be little prospect of her returning to any kind of social normalcy. This is the lay of the land when Louise comes into the picture. A sleazy drifter and scam-artist in her young twenties, played effectively by Superman's dame Kate Bosworth, Louise meets Julia in the city by chance and picks up on her vulnerability, perhaps sensing she's some old, lonely lesbian who can be taken for a ride and cleaned out or more simply, someone who will feel sorry for her. During their first meeting, Louise gives Julia a phoney tale of woe, and in the space of a few minutes, Julia has her checkbook out and is shelling out for travel fare and medical expenses for an unborn child (which doesn't exist.) Louise then wisely disappears, but their interaction isn't over yet.
No points for guessing that Julia will eventually come to see Louise as a surrogate daughter who she must protect, but despite that rather uninspired premise, The Girl in the Park succeeds as drama because of above-average performances all around and the steady hand of first-time director David Auburn. For one thing, we never quite know where we stand with Bosworth's character. She's a street hustler and apparent prostitute, with several different names, but she's also articulate to the point of implausibility and can move in polite society. The film has a great scene where Louise is brought to a dinner party as Julia's guest, and it's Julia that ends up causing a scene, not Louise. Louise is also a compulsive liar, in the way of a junkie or someone who knows that what they say will determine where their next meal is coming from, but she also exhibits a certain degree of independence at times and even taunts Julia at one point with the possibility of that she will up and leave. She knows her mark well.
The film shifts gears dramatically when a relative of Louise comes to visit, and calls her by a different name in Julia's presence. Again, no points for guessing the name. But how everything resolves itself isn't really what's compelling about The Girl in the Park -- it's Weaver. Her Julia is entirely convincing as a woman driven to the brink of madness by a random tragedy, but she doesn't overplay it and risk driving the performance into melodramatic territory. She reveals the damage Julia has suffered in bright, quick flashes: her moments of inconsiderate behavior towards others, her inability to judge situations and other people's perceptions correctly, her total lack of impulse control, and her willingness to take huge personal risks for some ill-defined goal. All of these character tics add up to sense that there's simply nothing in Julia's life that's personally important anymore, and she has nothing to lose by embracing a dangerous con woman who may or may not have very bad intentions. Mark this down as one of Weaver's better performances, and that's saying a lot.