Writer/director Harry Mcqueen’s tremendously moving “Supernova” begins with a completely black screen.
White dots appear, one by one, until we’re gazing at a field of stars and a rapturous vista of the cosmos.
Gradually, Mcqueen reveals why the emphasis is on the Milky Way – he circles back to this repeatedly, that life is a random, cosmic and beautiful occurrence.
We meet Sam, a musician (Colin Firth) and Tusker, a writer (Stanley Tucci), while they’re driving a mobile home on a long-distance road trip. They’re an old couple who share an easy rapport and a tendency to tease one another.
We learn that their destination of Sam’s childhood home has a sad objective – Tusker has dementia and is losing his memory. While Sam is planning ahead with upcoming vacation arrangements and distractions for his life partner, Tusker is dealing with his condition on his terms and savoring every moment he has left.
I fear my description makes this sound like a weepie, heavy-handed and sappy endurance test. There’s nothing forced or melodramatic about “Supernova,” which has a rich sense of humor, unrushed pacing and genuine compassion for both Tusker and Sam.
Tucci was always such a reliably strong character actor, which is why it’s been disheartening to see him ham it up recently (in unworthy films like “The Hunger Games,” “Burlesque” and a couple of “Transformers” sequels).
Co-starring in “The Devil Wears Prada” brought him a younger audience, but those roles aren’t worthy of his talent.
Here, Tucci gives a calm, unforced turn, which is matched by Firth’s deeply felt and equally subtle performance. They create a lived-in dynamic and share a vibrant chemistry. The only adjustment was seeing Firth driving a camper, which is like watching Dame Judi Dench change a flat tire.
“Supernova” is lovely, tender and funny, the kind of drama that is all too rare and generous to its audience. Rather than bombarding us with histrionic, Oscar-baiting monologs or garnering sympathy from public breakdown scenes (or any other cliché that mark TV movie-like dramas), this one remains quiet, observant and honest.
A telling detail is in the marketing, as the theatrical one-sheet poster touts this being “from the producers of the award-winning 45 Years.” It’s a fine comparison, as is the underappreciated John Lithgow/ Alfred Molina love story, “Love is Strange.”
My only real qualm with “Supernova” is trivial.
For 20 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the title belonging to a 2000 sci-fi B-movie that has a healthy cult following and remains a fascinating piece of Hollywood history. No matter, as the title is the only thing about Mcqueen’s film that is recycled.
Firth and Tucci show us a vulnerability and transparency in their characterizations that we haven’t seen from either actor in some time. For both leads, this is among their finest work.
“Supernova” is about the need to create memories and to have control over one’s life. As Tusker is all too aware that his mind will continue to diminish, his struggle becomes not about holding on but giving himself completely to every exchange and human encounter that remains.
Mcqueen lingers on a nice moment where Tusker abandons a party to show his niece the proper way to stargaze outside; there are lots of scenes like that, where the characters behave in ways that reflect the unplanned, found moments that matter so much.
The final scenes offer multiple interpretations, which is preferable to a literal, punishing conclusion. Mcqueen’s film has a sad premise but is truly a celebration of life
I cried a lot, though I also reflected how thankful I am to have another day where I can stare into the infinity of the heavens above.
“Supernova” is just about perfect.