Published in May 2013, Katherine Center’s novel The Lost Husband is the basis for the second feature film from director Vicky Wight (The Volunteer) and is the latest novel-to-screen adaption to entertain audiences. With a premise focused on a newly-widowed woman moving her two kids to rural Texas to live with an estranged relative and work their farm, the story sets a certain kind of expectation of a trope-filled plot ultimately ending in “lost person finds themselves.” While this reviewer can’t speak to the accuracy of Wight’s screenplay in adapting Center’s novel, I can say that, for almost every time audiences expect The Lost Husband to run straight toward one of those genre clichés, it pivots, making for a frequently surprising and tender experience.
In the span of weeks, Libby Moran (Leslie Bibb) lost her husband, Danny (Kevin Alejandro), and her home, forcing her to move in with her judgmental mother, Marsha (Sharon Lawrence). Having had enough, Libby takes her two children, Abby (Callie Hope Haverda) and Tank (Roxton Garcia), to live on her estranged Aunt Jean’s (Nora Dunn) farm. There, her kids are given a fresh start while Libby is put to work milking goats, tending to the farm, and helping with other aspects of Jean’s goat cheese business. Things might be smaller than Libby’s used to in Attwater, Texas, but the return to her roots may prove the most restorative.
The premise of The Lost Husband is fairly well-trodden, which means that in order to create anything memorable, it must find a way to stand out. The film does this by playing with expectations, through interesting direction, and solid performances from the entire ensemble. The events, as the audience sees them, appear to take place over the course of a few months as Libby moves her family at the start of the year to Jean’s. The obvious subtext comes from the film beginning in January. This plays both on the notion of “new year, new start” as well as the natural time of dying in an ecological sense. This immediately sets up a notion, amid all the pain Libby’s facing, of something being shucked off to make way for something new. The fact that Jean’s farm lacks creature comforts like a dish washer, a washing machine, televisions, and a microwave only adds to the sense of starting from a beginning, a return to something simpler. Don’t let this suggest, in any way, that Jean’s is some rustic, worn-down home. Production designer Diz Jeppe (Bug) makes quite sure that the home is clean, well-kept, and filled with calming shades of blue and white. Jean’s home forms a representation of a peaceful place: simple, yes, but not without love. Later, as the story really gets going and Libby struggles with running the farm (the expected fish-out-of-water trope), her earlier gripes of hard labor quickly fade, not because of time we haven’t seen, but because of how naturally she takes to the work. It becomes suggestive of two aspects: Libby’s own willingness to grow beyond what she was and a familiarity with the tasks she doesn’t quite understand. This enables the character to engage in set-ups for choices that would otherwise follow the path set by the genre, yet cleverly separate itself from the genre in various ways.
Wight’s direction is, perhaps, the thing that makes moments of The Lost Husband feel as refreshing as the film itself. Where most directors would rely on coverage from multiple angles to film scenes, there are several in which Wight prefers extended long takes. This is more than a few moments of empty style as each time evokes an emotional response. One that’s particularly striking is early in the film when Libby goes to take a shower after Jean tells her she’s got 10 minutes to do so. While the action displayed doesn’t play in real-time, the camera slowly spins as Jean moves about the kitchen. Libby may be the center of the story, but this single moment highlights how life continues despite our presence. That, opposite of our individual feelings, the world doesn’t get put on pause no matter how much we want it to. Again, not all of the film is staged this way, but the few times the direction shifts like this, it creates a sense of greater significance to the scene. Multi-camera coverage is so traditional in cinema that audiences expect it, thus making the shifts away from it invoke a stirring within. Take a sequence later in the film wherein two characters are having a discussion in an enclosed space. Given the restriction, it would make sense to cut back and forth, yet Wight holds off on this at first, opting to pan back and forth as the two argue. This inserts an immediacy to their conflict that the editing of multi-camera shots seek to create. The panning makes the tension far more palatable and the editing takes on a sense of emotional or cognitive disconnection after the lengthy pan sequence. All of these decisions suggest a director with a clear vision of the emotions they want from a scene, and how best to use the tools to achieve it.
While The Lost Husband does focus greatly on Bibb’s Libby, this is truly an ensemble film. Each character may not undergo a journey as significant as hers, yet Libby is not the only one impacted by her decision to live with her aunt, Jean. This is refreshing as so many films of renewal or self-discovery often come at a cost of to the other characters. Instead, the narrative naturally extends itself to others. Doing so not only heightens Libby’s increasing sense of awareness beyond her own grief, but dials into the larger theme of life continuing outside of ourselves. Especially in times of great mourning, it’s easy for us all to get wrapped up in those feelings. Slowly, Libby and the audience discover just how wrong that notion is and how closed off it makes us all. For her part, Bibb conveys the absolute heartbreak that comes from unexpected loss, the frustration of trying to create normalcy for others, and the terrible guilt that arrives from remaining without the one you’ve lost. Dunn, more widely known for her comedic work with Saturday Night Live, illustrates why comedians succeed in dramatic works: their innate sense of timing. Dunn’s dry delivery often weighs Bibb’s emotional energy, making the two delightful sparring partners. The characters they play may be estranged at first, except there’s a growing sense of a closeness the audience feels long before Libby does — again, a by-product of strong casting and gifted performers. For his part, Josh Duhamel (Love, Simon) amuses as the brisk, but kind farm manager, James O’Connor, who trains Libby on the ins-and-outs of Jean’s farm. Once more, the narrative seems inclined to set up James as some kind of savior or to make him a project for Libby, the way some dramatic romances are wont to do, but the smart script never goes fully in that direction. This allows Duhamel to exhibit his usual understated charm without ever making himself a dominating presence. Like his performance in Simon, Duhamel’s softness is a gift to the production. Ultimately, by drilling into the characters and not relying on unnecessary drama, Bibb, Dunn, and the rest offer performances natural, charming, and delicate, unafraid to explore the pain of loss and the joy of connection.
When it comes to films like The Lost Husband, the audience knows that things are going to work out, one way or another. Wight clues the audience in to this via the lovely cinematography from Aaron Kovalchik (M.F.A.), who ensures each shot is never too gloomy or too resplendent, but is grounded in natural tones and lighting, and from composer Sherri Chung (CW’s Batwoman), whose score is frequently light and playful even during sequences of clear character discomfort. These signals bolster the notion that The Lost Husband is also about finding oneself, that the pain of the moment does pass, and it’s nature’s way to move on. So even when Wight’s screenplay seems to jump whole hog into every trope offered from the genre, just before it zags in a different direction, we always know that things will be ok. If nothing else, the combination of giving the audience clues they recognize with a narrative path that surprises is just another reminder that life never goes quite how we plan. But it does go. We cannot stop it. All we can do when we feel lost is try to find ourselves and keep going.
Available on VOD April 10th, 2020.
For more information on the film and where to watch it, head to the official The Lost Husband website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.