Maybe the smartest decision made in The Outrun, directed by Nora Fingscheidt, is its fractured narrative device. Based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by Amy Liptrot (co-writing with Fingscheidt), the film offers a frank, unwavering look at addiction with the great Saoirse Ronan (who also produces) in the lead role. We move forward and backward in time, often relieved to be clear from horrible sins of the past only to be thrust back into them minutes later. In this way, the picture reflects its subject with painful precision.

Rona, recently sober and just out of rehab, has returned to her hometown in the Orkney Islands, a remote archipelago off the coast of Scotland. Following a degree in biology and complicated metropolitan life in London, she finds herself back in her mother’s house. Her father (Stephen Dillane, great) lives nearby in a trailer on a farm he (sometimes) runs. His struggles with mental illness inform much of the fear and cyclical trauma Rona is trying to escape. Her mother (Saskia Reeves, incredible) has found God in an attempt to get through the day.

Fingscheidt jumps there and back again, using Rona’s ever-changing hair color as a marker for different moments, tragic and otherwise. Ultimately, Rona moves out to an even more remote island after another setback. She keeps a small cottage right on the coast, her only immediate company the nearby seals. She also takes up work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds by mapping corncrakes, a rare bird in the region. Taken from Liptrot’s book, Rona’s narration offers up the history of the Orkney Islands as told by Scottish myths. There’s mention of selkies and kidnapped children in shadowy islands only seen in the fog. Animation with a children’s-book aesthetic and archival media aid in these sharp recollections. They also offer welcome detours from some truly harrowing scenes of drunken terror. Rona’s binges often result in violence and the kind of vicious honesty only reserved for one’s most private thoughts.

Ronan, of course, is exceptional. This is an actress who has yet to turn 30 years old and has established herself as one of the most important, interesting, and engaging performers of her generation. Her role in The Outrun serves as an expansion of what she can do. Despite this strong turn and a labyrinthian structure that aptly mirrors the cyclical battle of urges and memory and regret, Fingscheidt’s film is a bit long in the tooth. It’s almost as if there was so much in the source material that the director did not want to see lost––something one can certainly sympathize with.

Stunning shots of the island lingers and transitional sequences––like one explaining to addictive elements of alcohol (or ethanol more specifically)––feel a tad pedantic. And while flashbacks to Rona’s troubled days are plentiful, Paapa Essiedu, who plays Rona’s long-suffering partner, is short-changed a bit. This is redeemed slightly in a compelling third-act scene between the two ex-lovers. Though there may be too much here, plenty of it’s compelling and important. The Outrun is undoubtedly a hard sit, but Ronan serves as a superb vessel through choppy waters.

The Outrun premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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