Matt & Mara film still

Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Canadian drama of old friendship and love, Matt & Mara.

There are a lot of small pleasures to be had in this Rohmerian Canadian drama by Kazik Radwanski (presented at the Encounters Section of the 2024 Berlin Film Festival). Yet, the major character's careful map of insecurities tends to derail the whole film, which cannot make the table-tennis relationship a marked, deeply felt experience -even though it is an enjoyable one.

Mara (Deragh Campbell) represents the realist, erstwhile writer, now stuck in her glass, detached pretense of a literature critic and Toronto educator. Happily married to the musician Samir (Mounir Al Shami) and with a daughter to care for, she meets -in the film's first shot and pre-credits scene, her sentimental nemesis. Matt ('Blackberry's Matt Johnson) is her yang to her ying -and a charismatic, published author, who seems to have the urge to bring all women out of their comfort zone (without promising much but his company for return). Matt will stick to Mara like a friend you want to have but also want to get rid of at times. Yet Mara never seems to mind.

This moment is only the beginning in Radwanski's carefully crafted script of scenes that never excite lovemaking, but always suggest something more than literary collegiumship and friendship for old times' sake. The cards are set on the table from the coffee shop scene early in the film. We learn that Matt crafts imagination to suit his version of reality, and Mara persists that this amounts to the forging of reality (in the alternation of single shots that last that make the characters isolated defenders of their truth version). The illusion is shaken by the sudden rise of the music in the cafe (a reminder that a third person is always around to break into this wilful game of sorts).

Mara's trajectory is without a doubt the most interesting in the film, as we can see her alternating between getting closer to Matt (inviting him as a guest in her creative writing classes) and moving away from Shami (having to admit that she thinks music is an aberration to her world). Her character is the most interesting (but not the most likable), and Deragh Campbell essentially communicates all the kinds of different directions (from friendship to a relationship) her character seems to lean forward to. There are some narrative surprises for Matt as well; as the narrative progresses, we discover he's not just the free-spirited writer -or better, that his free-spirited approach may extend to a lot of other sentimental objects of interest.

Luminous cinematography and slick production design (watch Mara's trademark sweater) make the story a contemporary, sunny, and modern affair - perfect for a 21st-century couple that doesn't have to admit they are in love. As expected, the plot spares of major dramatic setbacks (yet there are deaths in the extended family), and its tone (except for a brilliantly acted religious symbol comic scene) is mostly conversational of the type you'd like your true friends to utter.

Within its short, 80-minute running time 'Matt and Mara' still feels like an unanswered exercise in a relationship (even in the literary defined framework). With all its repartitions between the two characters, the drama only seems to take off in the latter third of the film -and the car fight scene, in which both characters can finally let their guards off and reveal insecurities and the need for commitment. Still, the film's setting is a welcome one, and supporting characters offer their voice in the magic (or the dreariness) of committed relationships. Watch it with a bookworm's eye view.

Vassilis Kroustallis


Matt & Mara premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival (Encounters).