Producers: Steve Golin, Tom McCarthy, Jonathan King and Liza Chasin   Director: Tom McCarthy   Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré   Cast: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, Camille Cottin, Lilou Siauvaud, Idir Azougli, Deanna Dunagan, Anne Ly Ny, Moussa Maaskri, Naidra Ayadi, Nassiriat Mohamed and Mahia Zrouki   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade:  B

Tom McCarthy’s choice of the Oklahoma town to provide the title for his latest examination of culture clash is rather heavy-handed, since it conjures up hackneyed commonplaces about emotions running strong under placid surfaces.  Setting that aside, however, “Stillwater” proves an affecting tale of a father’s attempt to rescue his estranged daughter from a long prison term for a crime she insists she did not commit.  The name also provides an eventual clue about the truth of her claim to innocence.

Matt Damon gives a subtly controlled performance as Bill Baker, a tough but stoic oilfield construction worker taking jobs wherever he can find them.  His daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is languishing in a French prison, facing a long term for killing her roommate while studying in Marseille.  (The premise is obviously based on the Amanda Knox case.)  Bill, who was mostly absent while she was growing up, raised mother by her grandmother Sharon (Deanna Dunagan, now travels as often as he can to France to bolster her spirits and consult with her lawyer, a woman named Leparq (Anne Ly Ny).

On his latest visit an agitated Allison has him deliver a note to Leparq suggesting that she track down a fellow named Akim, whom she suspects of being the killer.  But he’s an elusive figure, observable only in a single photo, and when Leparq dismisses the idea, Bill decides to try to find the guy on his own.  As a stranger who doesn’t speak the language, however, he needs to enlist help, first from a shady investigator (Nassiriat Mohamed) and then, more importantly, from Virginie (Camille Cottin), an actress whose darling little daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) he befriends while they’re staying in a hotel room next to his.  In time he and Virginie become romantically involved, and he moves in with her and Maya.

But he never gives up on his search for Akim, and his queries in the city’s projects results only in a glimpse of him (played by Idir Azougli)—and gets him a beating from the locals.  When, after a time, he accidentally stumbles on the man at a soccer match to which he’s taken Maya, he takes drastic action that’s ultimately helpful to Allison but not without effect on his relationship with Virginie, as well, one might note, as veering into the melodrama the film has avoided up till that point.  The ending is bittersweet at best.

In many respects “Stillwater” works best as a character study of Baker, a taciturn fish out of water who keeps things close to the vest.  Damon encapsulates him beautifully, from the carefully-chosen wardrobe of jeans and plaid shirts to the quiet, unassuming manner that conceals his intense determination to make things up to his daughter.  Bill’s relationship with Virginie and Maya obviously represents a second chance for him, and Damon conveys both his longing for that and reaction when it conflicts with the debt he feels he owes to Allison.

The women who surround him are all deftly played.  Breslin captures the complexity of Allison, who can shift from hopefulness to angry despair on a dime and whose protestations of innocence may be a mite too facile, while Dunagan’s matter-of-factness in dealing with her son is point-on.  Cottin’s openness to Baker might strike some viewers as implausible, but she carries it off, and Siauvaud is an absolute charmer.  There’s also a telling vignette by Naidra Ayadi as a friend of Virginie’s who’s more willing than she to challenge what she perceives as the American’s darkly provincial attitudes.  The men fare less well, but Maaskri convinces as a fellow looking to profit wherever he can, and Azougli registers Akim’s desperation as Baker applies pressure on him to confess.        

One has to appreciate the customary understatement that McCarthy, as well as Damon, brings to what might have devolved into a crude action thriller, and the visual naturalness  in Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and Philip Messina’s production design, in both the European and American scenes. Tom McArdle’s unfussy editing is an asset, even though the film runs rather long, while Mychael Danna’s score is generally unobtrusive, except when it tries to add oomph to the more dramatic moments.

“Stillwater” doesn’t plumb the emotional depths its makers might have been seeking, but it conveys a welcome sense of moral ambiguity, bolstered by McCarthy’s admirable restraint and Damon’s insightful performance.