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Memory movie review & film summary (2023)

“Memory” loses something when Franco steps away from Sylvia and Saul. Sylvia’s relationship with her daughter Anna, who wants the kind of freedom every teenager demands—the space to grow up—requires greater specificity: We’re just never sure of Anna’s likes and dislikes, aspirations or quirks. The same can be said of Sylvia’s extended family, the one belonging to her sister Olivia (Merritt Wever). Olivia’s children and husband are merely devices to pull further secrets from Sylvia. But their mechanics are so blatant, they almost disengage one from wanting to know more.  

Franco loves teasing impenetrable characters, see his Mexican dystopian thriller “New Order” and his English-language meditation “Sundown” for reference. But here, his plotting gets flattened a tad by his overworked approach. We know, for instance, the longer he keeps Sylvia and her estranged mother (Jessica Harper) in different spaces, how deep their fissure must be. The script’s game of keepaway becomes a tedious job of probing. Franco, thankfully, situates their divide in real emotion. Once Sylvia and her mother do collide—in a gut-wrenching, cathartic argument that reveals the latent memories that have permanently fractured this family—you understand why the pair have remained separated for so long. 

These gambits work because “Memory” isn’t a pure puzzle box. Told through a humanist lens, it never resorts to simple sentimentality. There have been plenty of films over the last five years about dementia (the good ones being “The Father” and “What They Had”). These works often take on characters in the latter stages of the disease, when the heartbreak is clear, and the toll is seen through the eyes of the affected family members. But Saul isn’t at that point yet. He still has agency, he still pines for love and carries regret. Saul’s dementia doesn’t pull focus toward the people around him; it centers how he is grasping his slipping reality. Thus, what arises are questions of capacity, of permission, and of autonomy. Can someone still fall in love, even if, day-by-day, they’re less and less like themselves? How do we respect the wishes of someone, who, one day, will not be capable of verbalizing their demands? What is the moment when one ceases to internalize their experiences?

“Memory” doesn’t necessarily have direct answers to those questions. But it does well enough to know that even if a person is damaged, whether emotionally or psychologically, that shouldn’t negate them from receiving the kind of support that doesn’t belittle them but treats them with a dignity that goes beyond their trauma.

In limited release now. Going wider in January.

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