Watching Aloft is like being lectured by a boorish and melodramatic professor. It condescends to the audience, withholds and then reveals vital information to hide its intellectual emptiness, and displays a crippling contempt for humanity that will break you if you stay with it long enough. Riddled with trite symbolism and a vague indie aesthetic, the film’s more compelling moments are only the result of cheap narrative tricks. It isn’t shy about letting you know how little it thinks of you.
In the first English-language film from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, Jennifer Connelly plays Nana, a single mother to two boys, one of whom is suffering from an unnamed life-threatening disease. After taking him to visit a mysterious healer known only as The Architect, Nana discovers that she has healing powers and begins to hone her craft. Llosa makes frequent cuts between this past and the present, in which Jannia (Mélanie Laurent), a journalist with shadowy motives, asks Nana’s grown son Ivan (Cillian Murphy) for help in tracking down his estranged mother, who lives with her followers somewhere near the Arctic Circle.
To the small degree that Aloft remains tolerable, it is due to the performances of the terrific cast. Connelly and, in particular, Murphy are far better than the story they serve. While Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with Connelly, especially as she has aged out of her ingénue roles, her piercing emerald eyes and dreamy delivery make her a snug fit for the role of a working-mother-turned mystic. As her grown son, Murphy matches her quiet intensity for much of the film, but when he explodes in the film’s emotional climax, it’s captivating.
Most viewers will have lost interest by then. The film works best as a visual meditation on nature and human connection (the cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc is mesmerizing), but Llosa insists on making Aloft a mystery, and the narrative machinations force the film’s dream-like momentum to a grinding halt before it gets going. Here’s the problem: Llosa juxtaposes the two timelines to hint at a childhood trauma that caused the rift between mother and son, but as soon as that trauma is revealed, the film is over. We spend two hours watching vaguely drawn, aimless characters reaching for a conclusion whose meaning we can’t possibly grasp until we’re leaving the theater.
This cheap narrative structure isn’t just boring—it’s puerile. Llosa reveals a frustratingly narrow view of humanity and reduces its characters to mere props. Is a person’s entire inner life the result of a single traumatic event? Aloft seems to think so. This reductive psychobabble would not be out of place in a Psych 101 class (or perhaps Ordinary People), but a film for adults has to do better: Unlike a college student listening to an awful lecture, you can always walk out of a movie, and Aloft will tempt you to do just that.
Aloft opens June 5 at E Street Cinema.