Title: The High Cost of Living
Writer-director: Deborah Chow
Starring: Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbe, Julian Lo
For a brief period of time, surrounding the 2004 festival premiere and commercial release of Garden State, his critically lauded writing and directing debut, it seemed as though Zach Braff’s career would be taking a hairpin turn, away from the manufactured, hyper-realized silliness of “Scrubs” and into the hinterlands of auteurdom. This pivot, and Braff’s second feature film behind the camera, was put on hold — at least for a while — by the life-support extension of the last two seasons of his hit sitcom, which came about late in the TV re-up cycle, and found Braff working a reduced load, handing off the baton to a younger generation of medical internists.
One of the movies he completed during this timeframe, however, provides an illuminating glimpse of the sort of subject matter that stirs and captures Braff’s interest. “The High Cost of Living”, from writer-director Deborah Chow, unfolds in French-speaking Montreal, where scruffy drug-peddler Henry (Braff), an American ex-pat living on an expired visa, leaves a party one night, makes a wrong turn and runs down pregnant Nathalie (Isabelle Blais). Panicked, and with his car full of all sorts of illegally obtained prescription pills, Henry drives off, and leaves her.
Stricken with guilt, however, he later farms out the task of following up and checking on Nathalie to his friend Johnny (Julian Lo), who finally tracks her down after she leaves a local hospital. Shadowing her, in an effort to appease his rattled conscience, Henry soon learns Nathalie may still be alive and quite mobile, but has actually lost her baby, which will be stillborn at the completion of her term. While Nathalie’s workaholic husband Michel (Patrick Labbe) is too emotionally bereft to deal with the incident in a manner that truly comforts her, Henry — his complicity in her accident unknown to Nathalie — swoops in and plays guardian angel, eventually becoming quite close to the woman upon whose life he has brought tragedy.
“The High Cost of Living” is vaguely reminiscent of Don Roos’ “Bounce”, another movie which addressed commingled grief and guilt, albeit in a slightly more pleasant or at least tempered fashion. While it avoids some of the big dramatic blowouts one might suspect given a logline synopsis of the story, Chow’s film is still fairly downbeat, and swollen with melancholy. If there’s a miscalculation, it lies a bit in the movie’s focus. Given both some of his behaviors and a disconnect hinted at before the accident, it’s no great leap that Nathalie, feeling desperately alone, leaves Michel. It’s a bit more complicated and involved of an emotional lift, though, the manner in which she gloms onto Henry’s asexual niceties. Certainly, there’s something to be said for just his basic servile kindness, standing in contrast as it does to Michel’s grin-and-get-through-it behavior. But the depth of Nathalie’s feelings in this regard are sacrificed in an indulgence of Henry’s deepening, unconfessed regret, which is far more dramatically conventional and far less interesting. Focusing the narrative more discretely through Nathalie’s eyes could have proven more rewarding.
That said, “The High Cost of Living” is a complex and well acted story about awakened integrity and the sometimes hard, concrete costs that come with honesty, rendered all the more interesting for the jumbled sociocultural backdrop against which it unfolds. The fact that Henry is American, Nathalie and Michel are French-speaking immigrants, and Johnny and his family are Asian gives the movie an almost subliminal, take-it-or-leave-it undercurrent of political allegory, if one wants to engage the material on that level. Cinematographer Claudine Sauve, meanwhile, trades in a muted color palette, awash in blues, greys and darker greens, that works in concert with the material to effect a depressive, melancholic tone, where the accumulated burdens of life leave their mark, even when the “right” decision is made.
Written by: Brent Simon