I had the chance to see The Sensation of Sight when it played the New Hampshire Film Festival last month in Portsmouth, NH where it won the award for Best Feature Film. We don't get a lot of films shot here in the Granite State, particularly ones with relatively high profile stars like David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Goodnight and Good Luck) and Ian Somerhalder (probably best known for his work on ABC's Lost) so there's been some local buzz about this one ever since it wrapped production a few years back.
The tagline on the poster is "When life becomes a second language..." The film's promotional materials describe Strathairn's character Fin as undergoing a mid-life crisis, but he's better described as a man who has been crippled by despair. Fin is a high school teacher who, in the wake of a tragedy involving a student for which he feels responsible, leaves his wife and son and moves into a boarding house. He spends his days walking around his small picturesque New England town, pulling a Radio Flyer wagon that carries the encyclopedias he tries to sell to the townspeople. "I didn't know they did that anymore," remarks one character about Fin's new vocation. "I don't think they do," he replies. More importantly, he only appears to have the one set of books (whose origin becomes important late in the film) and the whole process seems to be a sad desperate attempt to give meaning to a life he no longer understands..
The film's pace is slow but graceful with the plot flowing like a stream of water following the path of least resistance: it goes where it needs to go, but not necessarily where you expect it to. In his travels around town Fin touches the lives of several people including a former student named Dylan (Daniel Gillies) who still carries a grudge over something that happened years ago. Dylan is estranged from his father (Scott Wilson) and his sister Daisy (Elisabeth Waterston), both of whom we meet when they discover Fin napping on a park bench. They invite him home for a meal during which Daisy tries to show Fin that his response to the tragedy is not the answer, but he's not ready to face it. A single mom named Alice (Jane Adams) living at the boarding house takes an interest in Fin, leading to what has to be the most charmingly awkward romantic overture I've seen in some time.
The character played by Somerhalder -- who is never referred to by name and is listed in the credits as "The Drifter" -- suffers the same pain as Fin since the student whose death haunts the former teacher was The Drifter's brother. "Haunt" is a particularly appropriate word here, as The Drifter is constantly followed by his late brother's spirit. Whether or not this is supposed to be an actual spectral presence or perhaps something more symbolic is never made clear, but the boy is an almost constant presence. The Drifter is working off his community service sentence by washing police cars with Dylan. How all these characters interconnect is something director Aaron J. Wiederspahn plays close to the vest at first, allowing us to know the characters quite well before we fully understand their relationships to one another.
Strathairn is nothing short of amazing in this role. Like the film in general, his performance is ultra low-key, but he can convey so much in just a gesture or change of expression. Like his performance as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, his interpretation of Fin is a masterpiece of subtlety. This movie has been making the film festival rounds for some time now and this weekend makes its premiere at two theaters in New Hampshire (see the film's Myspace page for details) with the producers hoping to get the film into wider release at the beginning of the New Year. This is definitely art house fair, and whatever sort of release it ends up getting I doubt it will be playing multiplexes, but if you love film I heartily recommend you give this quiet little drama a chance.