Review: ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ starring Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Zoe Kazan and Jack Fulton in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Directed by Lone Scherfig

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “The Kindness of Strangers” has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six strangers find themselves connected in some way when a suburban housewife takes her two young sons to New York City to escape from her abusive husband.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of independent dramas with multiple layers to the story, but the ludicrous contrivances in the screenplay will irritate people who are expecting a story with more realism and substance.

Caleb Landry Jones and Andrea Riseborough in “The Kindness of Strangers” (Photo by Per Arnesen)

If you’re someone who disliked the 2005 Oscar-winning movie “Crash” (one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscar history), then you’ll really despise the drama “The Kindness of Strangers.” The movie takes a concept that’s similar to “Crash”—several strangers in a big city are connected in some way to each other and eventually meet—and makes it even more trite and ridiculous at the same time.

In “The Kindness of Strangers,” the big city is New York (“Crash” took place in Los Angeles), home to thousands of restaurants. But apparently one restaurant—a fairly upscale Russian eatery called the New York Winter Palace—is the go-to place in town for people to have their problems solved. But first, here’s a summary of the six strangers who end up being connected in the story.

Clara is a housewife who lives in Buffalo, New York, but in the dead of night, she’s left her home with her two young sons—older son Anthony (played by Jack Zulton) and younger son Jude (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong)—by driving to New York City. The reason for the secret trip? She’s escaped from her physically and emotionally abusive husband Richard (played by Esben Smed), who’s also been abusing the kids. She won’t go to the police or a domestic-abuse shelter because her husband is a cop, and she’s afraid that he’ll find her.

Alice (played by Andrea Riseborough) is an emergency-room nurse who never seems to go home because she’s always popping up in the story at the right momement to “rescue” someone. Not only is she a nurse, but she also does a lot of volunteer work at a church, where she leads a forgiveness support group. She’s also a regular customer at the New York Winter Palace.

Timofey (played by Bill Nighy) is the owner of the New York Winter Palace, which he inherited from his Russian grandfather. Timofey is American, but he fakes a Russian accent when he’s on the job. He has a droll sense of humor and a “seen it all before” attitude toward life.

Marc (played by Tahar Rahim) has recently been released from prison, where he spent a little more than three years on drug-related charges. His brother was a drug addict who eventually overdosed and whose drug activity got Marc arrested and wrongfully convicted. (Marc was in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Near the beginning of the story, Marc meets with Timofey and some of his restaurant colleagues, and convinces them to hire him as a manager of the New York Winter Palace.

John Peter (played by Jay Baruchel) is Marc’s defense attorney. He’s become somewhat jaded over his job, because he says he hates defending clients he knows are guilty. He’s part of the forgiveness support group led by Alice. And after Marc gets out of prison, he accompanies John Peter to the support group too. However, every time Marc goes to the group meetings, he insists he doesn’t really need counseling and he’s just there to be supportive of John Peter.

Jeff (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is a screw-up who can’t seem to keep a job because he keeps making dumb mistakes. He also has a nasty temper, because when he’s fired from a mattress-selling job, he takes a chair and smashes a window with the chair, while his supervisor and co-workers watch in shock. Jeff is four months behind on his rent and is close to being evicted.

When viewers first see Clara and her sons in New York City, she tells them they’re taking a fun vacation. At first, she’s able to fool them into thinking that it’s an adventure and they don’t have to go back to school because “New York is going to be kind of a school for you.” But then reality sinks in (her money starts to run out) and she resorts to stealing to get money for food and other essentials.

Clara steals a designer dress and purse to sneak into upscale parties at hotels and restaurants, where she shovels some of the party food in a bag when no one is looking. One of the places where she ends up stealing food is the New York Winter Palace, where she pretends she’s part of a big family that’s throwing a party there. Marc the manager strikes up a conversation with Clara and seems a little suspicious of her story, especially when he later sees her behind the coat-check desk where the coat checker should be. Clara ended up stealing a coat, and Marc narrowly missed seeing her commit this theft before she quickly left the restaurant.

Meanwhile, broke Jeff is confronted by his landlord, who tells Jeff that he won’t wait anymore for the rent that’s four months overdue. The landlord tells Jeff that he has one hour to leave the apartment. This demand is not only very unrealistic, but it’s also very illegal. Anyone who knows anything about New York City’s eviction laws knows that evicting a tenant is a drawn-out legal process that isn’t done in one day.

But this movie isn’t concerned about details like that, because it would ruin the set-up for homeless Jeff to end up at a soup kitchen, where (you guessed it) saintly Alice happens to be working right at that moment. She gets Jeff to help out in serving people at the soup kitchen in exchange for him getting free meals.

Meanwhile, the situation for Clara and her sons has gone from bad to worse. Clara has taken her husband Richard’s car (which he could easily report as stolen), but the car is towed away because she parked in the wrong zone and has too many unpaid parking tickets. Clara and her sons had been living in the car and now need to find shelter.  And it’s the middle of an ice-cold winter, don’t you know, so that makes the situation even more pitiful.

Clara and the kids end up at the soup kitchen, where (surprise) Alice happens to be working. And then later, the family is really desperate for a place to stay, but Clara doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter, so they end up at the church again where (surprise) Alice happens to be there too, right after she’s finished her support group meeting. Alice takes pity on Clara and the kids and offers them a room at the church for the night, even though it’s against the church rules. But wait, there’s more “coincidental” drama.

Clara and the kids barely have spent the night at the church when something almost tragic happens that involves someone being taken to the same hospital where Alice works and (surprise) she happens to be on duty that night too. And then Alice decides to break someone out of the hospital, even though it’s something that would get her fired and there are probably security cameras in the hospital that would catch her doing it.

And somewhere in this story, Clara ends up hiding underneath a table at the New York Winter Palace, where she’s seen by Marc, who doesn’t kick her out because he’s attracted to her. He lets her stay hidden under the table, as he serves her Russian food on the restaurant’s finest serving platters that he leaves on the floor like someone feeding a dog.

And then Clara finally comes to her senses and does something she should’ve done a long time ago: Decide to get a lawyer. She asks Marc if he knows any good lawyers. You already know who he recommends, even though John Peter’s specialty isn’t family law.

“The Kindness of Strangers,” written and directed by Lone Scherfig, is the kind of movie where the cast members’ acting isn’t the problem. (Although Nighy’s and Rahim’s American accents aren’t very convincing.) The biggest problem is the jumbled and hackneyed screenplay that has little regard for viewers’ intelligence.

The movie also takes the serious issue of domestic abuse and cynically uses it as just another plot device to connect the dots between these characters. And there are little details that indicate sloppy writing, such as a scene where incompetent and dim-witted Jake (of all people) puts someone on an ambulance gurney, when in reality an EMT or trained medical professional, not an untrained person, is required to do that.

Scherfig is capable of doing much better films (her Oscar-nominated 2009 drama “An Education” was one of the best movies of that year), so hopefully “The Kindness of Strangers” is not an indication that the quality of her work will continue to go downhill. “The Kindness of Strangers” isn’t the worst film you might ever see. It’s just not a very good movie, and you won’t feel much sympathy for the characters who make very bad decisions.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Kindness of Strangers” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 14, 2020.