A violent blow to the head is a terrible thing to waste. Countless movies and TV shows, usually comedies, have taken the plot-point potential of the concussion and run with it. “A Dirty Shame,” the most recent directorial outing of John Waters, has a whole slew of characters whose increasingly ridiculous sexual fetishes become activated by blows to the head. But that was in 2004, and in recent years this particular device has gone out of favor. Most of us think of it as lazy comedy, if we think of it at all.
This makes Stacie Passon’s debut feature, “Concussion,” a bold project from the get-go. Not only does her protagonist get a personality-changing concussion in the first scene, but the film afterward is most certainly not a comedy. Abby (Robin Weigert) is a New Jersey suburban mom with a divorce lawyer wife (Julie Fain Lawrence) and two kids. Her son is the cause of the accident, having stupidly thrown a baseball right at his mother’s face. As she recovers she finds herself sexually frustrated and bored, and tries to solve the problem by going back to work (flipping apartments in New York City).
Of course, laying tile isn’t going to fix everything. Abby experiments with a prostitute, but ends up spending an evening with a junkie that only makes her uncomfortable. Still, her handyman and collaborator Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), suggests that she try it again with a professional at a higher level. One thing leads to another, and it might be a spoiler to say anything more than this: Abby gets involved in the industry. She operates out of the apartment she’s fixing up, which furnishes itself around her shifting self-perception. The space is designed, lit and shot to complement the veiled dignity of Abby’s illicit, stolen afternoons.
The most obvious point of reference is Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour,” in which a young housewife (Catherine Deneuve at 24) spends her afternoons fulfilling her sexual fantasies by working as a prostitute. Yet the similarity is only on the surface. Passon’s film is not about wild sexual fantasies and grand, anti-bourgeois politics in the same way as Buñuel’s surrealistic classic. Deneuve’s Séverine is primarily motivated by an overwhelming erotic desire for dangerous sex that her husband cannot provide. Abby, on the other hand, may have been awakened by a violent event, but her experience is neither exotic nor sensational.
Moreover, Passon has written a screenplay that wisely and empathetically looks well beyond the concussion itself. One doesn’t get the impression that Abby’s marriage was perfect before the accident, for example. Nor is this a simple story of suburban boredom. Passon’s wealthy townspeople are not the inhabitants of Stepford, alienating all of the trapped free spirits at picnics. The neighbors and friends are complex, occasionally bitter people who very obviously have plenty of their own problems. There is no single piece of Abby’s life, external or internal, that can be pinned down as the source of her sudden drive for adventure.
This cautious navigation succeeds on the back of Weigert’s impressively nuanced performance. Her sexual adventure is far from one note, but rather morphs depending on the woman in question. All of the facets of Abby’s personality are explored, from more maternal instincts to riskier desires. Concussion exists beyond our arguments over sex positivity, demonstrating the linguistic limitations of such terminology. Passon’s lack of simplistic judgment of her protagonist may confuse or even alienate some audiences, but it aspires to something more interesting than the black-and-white morality of marriage. Her primary concern is the fullness of character, even if as a result she needs to leave some elements lingering outside of the narrative.
Concussion raises a lot of questions, and leaves a mighty few of them unanswered. This is a strength, not a weakness. Passon is neither interested in completely rejecting the institution of marriage nor celebrating it as the final destination of the gay community. The film has one of the best endings of the year so far, and part of its brilliance is in its refusal to clearly and authoritatively resolve these issues. Passon’s portrayal of sexuality is not so much fluid as it is open, a frankly refreshing way of seeing.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10