Producers: Michel Franco, Eréndira Núñez Larios, Alex Orlovsky and Duncan Montgomery  Director: Michel Franco  Screenplay: Michel Franco   Cast: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Josh Charles and Tom Hammond   Distributor: Ketchup Entertainment

Grade: C+

Memories—lost, garbled, suppressed—provide the driving force in Michel Franco’s tale of two troubled people who eventually find one another.  “Memory” has narrative problems, and its stark visual aesthetic is hardly attractive, but the performances are strong, though not enough to rescue the film from its improbability. 

Jessica Chastain stars as Sylvia, an alcoholic who, as we learn in the opening sequence set in an AA meeting, has been sober for thirteen years and works dedicatedly in a facility for the disabled.  But she suffers from emotional turmoil of her own, the result of memories of childhood sexual abuse, and it leaves her wary and frightened, not only for herself but for her teen daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), with whom she lives in a Brooklyn apartment.  Her obsessive securing of the multiple locks on the door and equally obsessive tidying of the place, along with the strictness she imposes on Anna, are signs of her continuing psychological trauma.

One evening Sylvia attends a high school reunion with her married sister Olivia (Merritt Wever), whom she often leans on for support.  There the fragile woman is unsettled by the presence of Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), a quiet, absently smiling man, and abruptly leaves.  But Saul follows her, taking a seat on the curb outside her front door and remaining there in the rain all night.  When she emerges the next morning to find him unresponsive, she calls emergency services.

Saul’s brother Isaac (Josh Charles) explains to her that Saul suffers from early-onset dementia, and experiences both fractured memories of the distant past and short-term memory loss.  At which point a revelation occurs: Sylvia is convinced that Saul was one of the students who assaulted her sexually in school, though he claims not to remember her at all.  But she nonetheless accepts an offer from Isaac’s daughter Sara (Elsie Fisher) to serve as Saul’s part-time caretaker.  True, there is a further revelation that explains, to some extent at least, her decision, but from an emotional perspective it still seems far-fetched.

Sylvia and Saul build a bond that gradually takes on a romantic element, but it’s a matter of concern to Isaac, and even Sara, when the final piece in the fraught tangle of relationships in introduced in the character of Samantha (Jessica Harper), Sylvia’s mother.  Sylvia has been estranged from her for years and has forbidden Anna to have anything to do with her, and is shocked that Olivia has kept her in her life, and that Anna is broken her pledge to avoid her. 

Like Isaac, Samantha is opposed to her daughter’s involvement with Saul, but her animosity toward their closeness becomes secondary when Sylvia accuses her of failing to intervene when she was being sexually abused in their own home.  And when Olivia admits a certain degree of culpability in the matter, both Sylvia and Anna turn on her as well.  (Of course, the film’s previous twists have already included the implication that at least some of Sylvia’s memories are mistaken, but resurrecting that possibility ion this case is summarily dismissed.)

By the end, the issue is whether Sylvia and Saul can overcome resistance from virtually everyone around them to connect on a deeper level. In that respect the movie calls to mind another New York take on lonely people struggling toward a relationship, 1955’s surprise hit “Marty,” but Paddy Chayefsky’s story was a far simpler tale, without the heavy emotional backstory Franco has contrived. 

And, indeed, that backstory is so contrived, with so many fraught interconnecting parts, that it makes it difficult for a viewer to suspect disbelief.  That’s true despite the raw, dingy look that the director and his crew—production designer Claudio Ramirez Castelli and costumer Gabriela Fernández—have cultivated, and by the spare compositions, often static group shots, that he and cinematographer Yves Cape favor.  The unhurried, even lackadaisical pacing that he and co-editor Oscar Figueroa Jara impose, intended to increase the gravity of the plot, instead often bring a sense of relentless repetition.

Nonetheless the performances of Chastain and Sarsgaard are impressive.  Given the characters they’re playing, both can seem studied at times, but she conveys Sylvia’s tremulousness as well as her burst of fury well, while he captures Saul’s mixture of uncertainty and serenity—and his sense of humor—without overly exaggerating either.  Among the others, Harper is the very image of the horridly self-satisfied mother, and Wever of the regretful sister.  Young Timber and Fisher are convincing as well; only Charles seems a trifle bland.

“Memory” features a display of compelling acting talent in service of a script that, in the final analysis, just doesn’t ring true.