The first images of the movie have the jumpy, chaotic gaiety of a home video. The girl, age five or six, is at a family gathering, smiling and miming. Everyone is smiling and laughing in that too loud, too good-natured family-get-together kind of way. The adults are sunk deep into couches and the kids are roiling about and the film washes out now and then with the glare of backlighting and then zooms in on the faces one at a time to save this moment for each person to be able to see how they were then.
You think: This is so ordinary. Where is it going? Your attention drifts to the others in the theatre. You wonder why such obvious sentimentality holds their attention.
When you look back at the screen, the images are unsteady. The hand that is holding the camera is shaking, or maybe the children are shaking the whole room. The girl is more aware of the camera than the others, was even in those first scenes, you now realize. She is hamming it up, almost flirting, even at nine or ten.
There is another jump-cut of time passing. The family is not in the scene now. The girl is alone in a park at twilight. She has a cap pulled low over her forehead. She seems to be looking for someone. Before we see if she finds him or her, she wanders into darkness.
You can see from the reaction of people around you that the abrupt change of mood has gotten their attention. They are not unwrapping candy wrappers. They are not slurping sodas.
Now the on-screen images are of the girl in her teens and she is running. We can’t see from what, but she seems afraid. She is stumbling. Her mouth is open and it looks like she is screaming, but there is no sound. Then we see others behind her. We don’t know who they are, or whether they are chasing her to save her or harm her. She glances back at them and keeps running.
A man in the row ahead of you whispers something to the woman he is with, and they get up and leave.
The girl, older still, is in shadows. Wandering. We can see her face but not what she is thinking or feeling. She is expressionless. She drifts in and among people and speaks to them but we cannot hear what she is saying. She takes a paper bag from a boy who looks older than she and moves off into the shadows again and when the camera finds her she is lying on the ground, a coat pulled up over her. It looks like she is asleep. She might be dead, she is that still. That alone.
The rustling of people getting up catches your attention, and you see that many are leaving the theatre. The movie doesn’t seem to be over, but it is over for them. Maybe they just don’t want to see what is going to happen to the girl. They should stay, you think. It can’t end this way.
The scene shifts to a diner. The girl is in a booth. She is painfully thin and pale. She has a plate of french fries in front of her, smothered in ketchup. Someone is in the booth across from her, but we can’t see who. It seems that her unseen companion is speaking to her. The girl glances up now and then as she eats the french-fries and the ketchup reddens her mouth, but we cannot hear what is being said. She finishes the food and gets up and leaves. The camera follows her out into the bright afternoon. She walks along the sidewalk, weaving slightly, and gradually the camera pulls back and we can see her approach a group of people paused at a stoplight to cross the street. She stops at the back of the group and when the light changes the group crosses the street and spreads out and it becomes difficult to pick her out of the crowd.
There are only a few others left in the theatre now. No one is getting up. They seem as stunned as you. Why have we been watching this? you want to ask them. Why would someone tell a story like this? It is not a story of redemption or triumph. There is not a happy ending. There is no ending. We have no idea what will become of the girl, but we are uneasy for her, afraid for her. She is on her own, choosing her own path, but we wonder if it was not somehow chosen for her, if she was not propelled along it by those earlier scenes that were so blurry and out of focus, or by some blurriness inside her that kept what she was seeing as distorted and elliptical as the scenes we have been watching. We wonder what we are meant to learn from them. How we are meant to feel. Where, when we leave the theatre and go out into the bright afternoon, we are meant to go.