Berlinale 2024 review: Matt and Mara (Kazik Radwanski)

“Although showing great insight into the human connection, Matt and Mara can feel slight.”

Have you ever known two people that were such close friends that that was their defining characteristic, they were only known for their friendship?” This early (non-verbatim) quote lays down the foundations for Kazik Radwanski’s short yet still meandering Matt and Mara, a film that deals with male-female friendship outside the romantic realm. A decidedly Rohmer-esque string of conversations (there is even a direct visual reference to the legendary French director) around a do-they-or-don’t-they couple that are drawn to each other, but not to the point where they take the proverbial plunge, the film is very small in scale but with clear insights into how humans function in relationships. Featuring a free-flowing script that left room for improvisation on the part of the actors, which shows in its entirely natural-sounding dialogue, the film’s dramatic anaemia may restrict its audience size, but for fans of awkwardness and fine acting Matt and Mara could be an undiscovered gem.

When author and free spirit Matt (Matt Johnson) unexpectedly shows up for a class taught by his former school pal, creative writing professor Mara (Deragh Campbell), she tries to brush him off with “We’ll email.” Matt is not one to take no for an answer though, and slowly works his way into the life of Mara. A life which is defined by her struggling marriage to musician Samir (Mounir Al Shami) and their daughter Avery. As the ebb of her marriage goes, so does the flow of her connection with Matt. But is that connection romantic? Both seem to wrestle with that question; Matt may have no baggage, but Mara has her home situation to contend with. When her husband fails her on a promise to drive her to an out-of-town conference, the opportunity arises for true romance with stand-in chauffeur Matt. But is that really what Mara wants?

With a film so focused on dialogue, one might overlook some of the good compositional work Radwanski does here. Granted, that focus leads to most of the film being shot in close-up, but when the Canadian director widens the view he drops some good shots. Matt and Mara is all about its actors though, and both Campbell and Johnson put in strong, naturalistic performances. Both are on repeat with Radwanski after 2019’s Anne at 13,000 ft, and with the director’s process of workshopping individual scenes on set, in particular Campbell thrives in her role as a conflicted woman who is in a relationship which isn’t all there, but who also isn’t sure what she wants to do with her friend. Johnson has the slightly easier part as the charismatic and somewhat obnoxious Matt, but the actor, best known for last year’s BlackBerry (which he also directed), has great chemistry with Campbell.

Although showing great insight into the human connection, Matt and Mara can feel slight, given that it is devoid of much incident and melodramatic crescendos. Its awkward social interactions remind one of Maren Ade’s Everyone Else (Radwanski admits to admiring Ade in the film’s press notes), another realistic look at how we sometimes simply don’t know how to act around others and how to find the line between friendship and romance. This doesn’t make Matt and Mara the most comfortable watch, but the truthfulness in its conversations draws the viewer in, and Campbell, Johnson, and Al Shami too create real characters that don’t feel writerly.

Image copyright: MDFF