The cynic in me suspects that The Kindness of Strangers started out as one film and became something else, just to cash in on the holiday movie rush. It’s too bad, because for a story set in the here-and-now New York City, there was a great opportunity to mess around with some tragicomedy. Instead of going for the surreal, thought, the film lands squarely in an old-school Disney fairytale without the magic, which for NYC, is too much of a leap.
Writer-director Lone Scherfig definitely has a sense of nostalgia for films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Casting actors like Jay Baruchel, Caleb Landry Jones, and Tahar Rahim slightly against type gives The Kindness of Strangers a little freshness in terms of that movie cliché of the gentle, down-on-his-luck everyman who just needs a chance. But with a lean this far into the implausible, the performances and the whimsical score basically add up to people on the verge of breaking into a number from Les Miz.
The “kindness,” using poverty and homelessness as a backdrop, involves a young woman (Zoe Kazan) and her two angelic-looking boys sleeping in shelters and stealing wherever they can, desperate to escape an abusive husband and father (Esben Smed). A local nurse (Andrea Riseborough), exhausted and lonely, yet compassionate in the face of suffering, changes the fate of the mother and kids, helping them hide out in the church where she conducts group therapy sessions. Sounds bleak for a seasonal movie, and certainly would be if any real-life consequences were explored. Too many coincidences later, and it’s not long before it’s obvious that this film will not be delving into what being homeless, emotionally broken, and lost in NYC is really about.
Then, sitcom territory – everyone gathered at a dinner table at some point, revealing quirks and crushes, breaking bread in a time-capsule Russian restaurant, complete with eccentric owner (Bill Nighy) – all of this amiss without a laugh track. Obligatory romance, in a ‘love is all you need’ fashion, is the big finish, so any tendency to get too depressing is undercut and probably the wisest choice, given the thin story.
Is it a comedy? No. Is it a drama? Not really. Does it leave you with a good feeling? Absolutely, if you can handle the cringey and cheesy bits. It’s not that much of a pain to watch this cast of actors if you’re looking for something light on blood, guts, and glory for the holidays.
The Kindness of Strangers is now playing at Cinéma Forum.