Anxiety is high at the start of Jesse Noah Klein’s Like a House on Fire. We hear Dara (Sarah Sutherland) breathing heavily in the bathroom of a train car before finding her seat. From there it’s a taxi and the not so confident stroll to a house’s front door—the laughter of a child behind its barrier stopping her in her tracks and forcing her to run across the street and hide as her breathing grows heavier yet again. She lowers herself even further once Danny (Jared Abrahamson) and little Isabel (Margaux Vaillancourt) exit on their way to daycare. Only after some distance is created between them does Dara dare follow and wait for him to inevitably turn around and spark a confrontation two years in the making.
That’s how long it’s been since he’s seen her. It’s also how long it’s been since she’s seen her daughter. Despite hope for the contrary, that’s too much time to simply pretend as though everything can go back to normal. Dara says she’s better and ready to be a parent, but what does that mean when Dan has been raising Isabel alone regardless of his own preparation to do so? What does it mean when their baby no longer remembers she had a mother who disappeared? A two-year-old can only cry about that absence for so long before it becomes the status quo. Pair Dara’s father not checking in alongside a new love entering Dan’s life (Dominique Provost-Chalkley’s Thérèse) and it’s like she never existed at all.
It’s more than with her daughter too. Dara no longer exists in her father’s (Michael Riley’s Jack) life either. So preoccupied with his new family (Amanda Brugel’s Audrey and Kayla Hutton’s teenage Bernice), he only visited her once during that prolonged stay at the clinic where she sought help for the post-partum depression consuming her so fully that no amount of love could ever make her feel as though she was capable of taking care of her child. In her mind everyone gave up. They waited just long enough to believe Dara simply followed her own mother’s (Sheila McCarthy’s Katherine) footsteps as far as leaving without ever coming back. Even if that were the truth, however, you can’t begrudge them for moving on. Life can’t wait.
Klein’s ability to authentically render this fact unalienable onscreen—while still allowing his lead character room to gradually escape the fantasy she’s held onto with an iron-grip in order to get better—is where power rests in this emotional drama. This notion that Dara could come back into town and pick up where she and Danny left off is what kept her alive. That was the goal. That’s why she worked so hard to bury her feelings and become the person her doctors told her she must for a clean bill of health. She chose to compromise the person she had become in the wake of motherhood so that she could be what Isabel needed. She rejected her mother’s choice to be herself and stay away.
That’s the ultimate decision, right? Not everyone has what it takes to be a parent and some don’t realize it until there’s no turning back. And let’s face it: Dara still might not be ready. Her emotions run high and her guilt even higher to the point where she snaps at those trying to help. Her only form of solace comes from the unlikeliest of sources: a co-ed (Hubert Lenior’s Jordan) whose own cluelessness about the responsibilities his life will soon take on allows him to relate to her uncertainty and provide a sweet sensitivity that those she walked out on can’t yet muster. But she’s trying. She’s enduring the painful operation of separating her past from her present so that she might still build a better future.
There’s a lot of welcome nuance in that process too since Dara isn’t the only person who must adjust. Not only does Danny have to reconcile wanting her in Isabel’s life against the reality that her place in his must change, but the pregnant Thérèse is struggling as a soon-to-be new mother herself who has already been filling that role with Isabel to willingly and proactively make room for them all to co-exist. The restraint they show as the woman who blew-up their lives two years prior does it all over again is commendably empathetic regardless of how Dara might see it. Danny and Thérèse have to think of Isabel first, though. They have to know Dara means what she says before reintegrating her into their lives.
So we watch the duality between words and actions. We watch as that sense of being overwhelmed reemerges despite Dara believing it’s under control. That’s just not how these things work. It’s not about stifling those feelings, but learning to live with them instead. That means embracing them with positivity—extricating them from the memory of how her mother handled their tumult so that they stop being a harbinger of doom and shift into a strength that she can channel towards being the mother she desperately hopes to become. This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Dara can be true to herself while also being what Isabel needs if she allows herself to move on from the person she used to be like everyone else already has.
Sutherland is great in the lead role. We see when Dara’s putting on a front and when that façade cracks under the pressure of pretending she can outrun what’s hiding beneath. Abrahamson moves between the emotions of being close to her and knowing that that closeness is no longer possible with authenticity as Provost-Chalkley proves the unsung MVP of the whole thanks to the compassion her Thérèse provides without fail from the moment she enters the frame. Klein could have written their two characters very differently and pushed Dara to a much darker place as a result, but he chose to embrace hope instead. While it’s not the hope she had of preserving her family, the opportunity to enter theirs and share it is hope just the same.
Like a House on Fire screened as part of TIFF Selects at the Toronto International Film Festival.