Adapted by Daniel MacIvor from his play, Marion Bridge is set in a tiny Nova Scotia town where life appears hard and largely joyless. Agnes has escaped to Toronto, but she's returning because her alcoholic mother, Rose (Marguerite McNeil), is dying. Rose, we gather, has lived willfully but irresponsibly. Not even the embrace of her deathbed is enough to break her lifelong habits of substance abuse. Theresa will not indulge her. But one of Agnes' first acts after arriving home is to sneak Rose a flask of hooch and a pack of smokes. Agnes may be wrong in indulging her mother this way, but she understands Rose's cravings because she has them herself. Agnes has been sober for a little more than two months, but she still hears the siren's call of the local pub where she wasted away much of her life before moving to Toronto.
We aren't long in determining that something was very much wrong with the family in which Agnes and Theresa grew up. Their other sister Louise (Stacy Smith) has an obvious eating disorder and other problems as well. She is plump and packing away the junk food. She is grouchy and monosyllabic. She also seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder; a typical evening for Louise involves hours of channel surfing during which no program is tolerated longer than it takes her to snarf a handful of potato chips and swipe the salt and grease off her fingertips onto the bib of her coveralls. Theresa would seem the least damaged of the sisters, but her strength is largely facade. She hasn't gotten over her broken marriage and continues to blame herself for her former husband's philandering. She furthermore stands poised to take him back the instant he'll consent to have her.
Much of this film is devoted to the way the three sisters relate to each other and their invalid mother. No one is happy, and that leads to tension thick as gumbo. Still, the writing and the skill of the three performers make the film's characters convincing as family members. They sneer and snarl at each other, but they accept each other, too. No one makes that unlikely speech about not ever again wanting to lay eyes on the others. They share the space in their mother's decaying house and alternate use of the one available automobile the way that few but family could manage.
The script endeavors to inject mystery and narrative tension through scenes in which Agnes drives some distance out of town to spy on a teenage girl named Joannie (Ellen Page), who works at a knick-knack shop and steals outside occasionally to smoke. For a while, Agnes contents herself with merely watching Joannie from afar. But eventually Agnes ventures inside the shop to engage Joannie in mundane conversation.
We can understand why the filmmakers might want to intensify their picture's drive, but the device they chose doesn't entirely work. We know from first sight who Joannie must be, and though we're not supposed to, we can pretty soon guess the whole of Joannie's story, her connection to Agnes and the extensive ways in which that connection speaks to what's so awry in the whole family. All of this, I regret to say, feels rather more TV-movie-of-the-week than it does film festival. Moreover, Agnes' reaction to Joannie's story seems inconsistent. At times Agnes seems to hint at repressed memory syndrome. At other times she seems to know everything. Theresa's reaction proves similarly confusing. At first Theresa is hostile toward any contact with Joannie. Then without circumstances changing in anyway, Theresa and Agnes set off on an outing that ends over beer in Joannie's boyfriend's apartment.
Meanwhile, we haven't a clue why Joannie would react as she does to the sudden, unbidden attention of women nearly two decades her senior. Things must be really slow for a perky teenager to want to hang out with two thirtysomethings who seem to want nothing more than to gape at her. Joannie remains as calm as Serena Williams hitting her first serve at all the moments we think she'd go running away in terror.
In sum, Marion Bridge is slow and flawed. The picture is well-acted, however, and its stubborn hopefulness is laudable. Its portrait of the way sisters relate rings true throughout.