A successful author, translator and mother of three teenage daughters, Reta Winters (Catherine Keener) lives a content life. One day, however, she finds her eldest daughter Nora (Mindhunter’s Hannah Gross) living on the streets in a catatonic state with a sign that says ‘Goodness’. Norah has dropped out of college and refuses to come home or even to speak to her family and friends. Reta is completely stumped with what to do and, along with her partner Tom (Matt Craven), becomes increasingly desperate as to how she can help Norah.
Based on the novel of the same name by Carol Shields, Unless provides an emotional family drama with some great performances, led by the ever dependable Keener and rising star Gross. Keener, who has shown a wide range of acting ability across Get Out, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Capote and Being John Malkovich, to name just a handful of credits, is truly a treasure while Gross’ performance drives one to great feeling for her cause, even when they don't totally understand it.
Unless will hit parent viewers particularly hard as it envisions the waking nightmare that they never even imagined could happen - what can you do when your child shuts themselves off like that, and when they’re no longer a child so you can’t take responsibility for them? Do you wait and hope they snap out of this state? Do you physically force them out of it? The sense of helplessness is pervasive.
While the film is certainly emotionally affecting, as well as providing a great sense of intrigue as to why Norah is doing this, what the sign ‘goodness’ means, and what would you do in the mother’s place, it is not without its shortcomings. The supporting characters’ relationships and connections to one another can be confusing and one feels they need to have read Carol Shields’ novel to understand it. While the movie is clearly trying to capture the profoundness and meaningfulness of its source novel, it falls slightly short of a lasting emotional wallop. Its final twist, when brought to the big screen, just seems a bit strange and cheap. Still, with some gorgeous location shots of its Toronto setting, as well as the aforementioned affecting performances, there’s much for more mature audiences to enjoy.