Kazik Radwanski follows up to Anne At 13,000 Feet with this introspective indie of incompatible friendship

Matt and Mara

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘Matt and Mara’

Dir/scr: Kazik Radwanski. Canada. 2024. 80 mins

Canadian writer-director Kazik Radwanski’s follow-up to Anne At 13,000 Feet reunites him with the actors Deragh Campbell and Matt Johnson and reprises the same free-flowing improvisational technique, to perceptive, abrasive and frequently acerbically funny effect,in this account of a friendship tipping over into an emotional affair.

One of those films in which very little concrete happens, but the tingling possibility that something might makes it compelling

The expression on creative writing professor Mara’s (Deragh Campbell) face is hard to read when, out of the blue, Matt (Matt Johnson), a somewhat successful, self-consciously unpredictable author, bounces back into her life, surprising her at the Toronto college where she works, just as she is about to teach a class. She’s exasperated, certainly, but there’s also an illicit thrill of excitement, something that has been missing from her strained marriage to experimental musician Samir (Mounir Al Shami). 

Radwanski is something of a Berlinale regular, having screened three short films in the main competition, and two previous features, How Heavy This Hammer and Anne at 13,000 Ft., in Forum. With Matt and Mara, he moves to the Encounters sidebar with his distinctive brand of acutely observed, mumblecore-adjacent naturalism. Not perhaps as marketable as it might have been a decade ago, and the vagaries in the demand for intimate North American indies notwithstanding, this is an appealing title that should create further low-key buzz on the festival circuit.

Mara bristles slightly when Matt, now living in New York and enjoying a degree of celebrity within literary circles, asks about her own writing. Mara has a job and a baby, but it rankles that she hasn’t matched the success of Matt, her peer, we gather, from university, and possibly a former romantic entanglement. When pressed, she admits that she’s intrigued by the idea of writing about a character who doesn’t know themselves, who struggles to pin down any certainties about their personality. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that she is describing herself.

Matt, meanwhile, turns the full beam of his attention onto her, making her feel seen in a way that she doesn’t in a marriage that has settled into shared childcare routines rather than passion. Mara allows herself to be carried along by the force of his personality, inviting him to a work party (he zeroes in on the most important person there, which he claims was purely coincidental. She’s not so sure.).

There’s a playful, irresponsible, skittish quality to the friendship – they are partners in, if not crime exactly, then the unspoken understanding that this is a friendship that might spark into something more at any moment. They amuse themselves with the private joke of smiling at strangers on the street, and of role-playing husband and wife when they get passport photos shot in what looks like a multi-tasking bong shop.

When Samir has to pull out of driving her to an out-of-town literary event where she is due to give a lecture, Matt steps in. And, during an impromptu stop at Niagara Falls, there’s a very real possibility that a relationship rubicon is about to be crossed. The collision of Matt’s narcissistic personality and Mara’s malleable one is dangerous for all involved. The fact that nothing is overtly stated or discussed about the status of their connection only heightens the expectations.

Matt and Mara is one of those films in which very little concrete happens, but the tingling possibility that something might makes it compelling. The appeal is largely due to the casting – Cambell and Johnson have an undeniable chemistry that is magnified by the improvisational freedom of the picture’s approach. And the agile camerawork deftly captures not just the finely-honed details of both performances, but also the increasingly charged space between the characters.

Production company: Medium Density Fibreboard Films

International sales: Medium Density Fibreboard Films info@mdff.ca

Producers: Dan Montgomery, Candice Napoleone

Cinematography: Nikolay Michaylov

Editing: Ajla Odobašić

Main cast: Deragh Campbell, Matt Johnson, Mounir Al Shami, Emma Healey, Avery Nayman, Marlowe Granad