Science fiction isn’t always an acting showcase, but it certainly can be. When the world is unfamiliar, the humans at the center take center stage, in terms of identification. With Foe, making its World Premiere at the New York Film Festival, almost the entirety of what makes the movie successful is the performances. The sci-fi world is interesting, but it’s the couple at the center of it that you invest in. It makes for a film at NYFF that won’t blow you away, but will ultimately give you something to think about.
Foe is rough around the edges and takes too long to really invest you in the story, but the acting trio on display help out a lot. Right as you’re about to check out and throw up your hands, the narrative takes a turn and starts to really have the cast go to town on the material. It’s a bumpy road getting there, but it builds to a very compelling third act.
Set about fifty years in the future, clean water and land are precious resources. Technology is also working on some very advanced artificial intelligence, though life in the midwest for Hen (Saoirse Ronan) and Junior (Paul Mescal) actually seems stuck in the past. They have a farm on a secluded piece of land that has been in Junior’s family for generations. It’s a quiet life, but the couple seem to be managing, at least on the surface. However, when they receive an uninvited visit from Terrance (Aaron Pierre). The stranger has shown up at their door with a proposal that will change things forever.
Terrance works for a company affiliated with the government, and they’re in the process of setting up a colony in space. The prep work is being made for habitation on other worlds, with Junior selected as someone to work up there. It’s not exactly optional, and while they’re are financial benefits for them both, they’re dubious. Junior is also thrown very much by the news that Hen will receive an AI copy of him to keep her company while he’s in space for two years. At the same time, Hen feels like she has no say between these two men deciding her future. As Terrance observes them both and tests them/trains Junior, breaking points emerge.
The trio of Paul Mescal, Aaron Pierre, and Saoirse Ronan are very good, with Ronan in particular best in show. Pierre has the lighter moments when they occasionally pop up, and you wish there was more to his character, but the performance is strong. Mescal gets to go a bit bigger than usual, but he’s an incredibly compelling actor. Watching him go to town on the material is always engaging. Ronan, however, has the quieter part, but the toughest one to pull off. She’s observing a lot, but when she takes action, you’re always invested. It’s one of her best performances, in fact. This is largely a three-hander, so it’s all about them.
Filmmaker Garth Davis is lucky to have this cast, so it’s good to see him give them lots to work with. The direction is largely focused on observing his main couple, with some little sci-fi elements thrown in around the margins. Co-writing with Iain Reid (who wrote the novel this is based on), Davis explain a ton about the world, which is a little bit frustrating, but he wants you most invested in Mescal and Ronan. In that regard, the film definitely succeeds. There’s some slack pacing and the first two acts spend more time setting up mysteries than pushing the narrative forward, but it comes together well enough by the end.
Foe starts slowly and takes a while to hook you. It may well threaten to lose less patient viewers. However, it ultimately becomes something more compelling than not. It’s definitely a lesser effort among the NYFF slate, but even if it’s just a mild recommendation, I do think the flick is worth watching.