There’s a lovely shot in Stay where Irish archaeology professor Dermot (Aidan Quinn) caresses the cheek of his sleeping girlfriend Abbey (Taylor Schilling). The gesture bespeaks intimacy, but it also hints at something sadder: the simple, fleeting impression of weathered fingers passing over a silky-smooth cheek illustrates the difference in the characters’ ages—a gap suddenly, violently exacerbated when Abbey hesitantly reveals she’s pregnant.
That early image is as resonant and poetic as Wiebke Von Carolsfeld’s sophomore feature gets. From there, the writer-director lets her screenplay do the talking, and winds up with a dully prosaic little movie. Fatally, for a film about damaged people methodically working through their problems—with themselves and each other—it gets less interesting the more it reveals about its characters. Having established Dermot and Abbey’s cozy May-December dynamic, the screenplay (adapted from Aislinn Hunter’s novel) quickly sets them on parallel paths. Devastated that her lover won’t even consider the possibility of children, Abbey decamps from her adopted coastal hamlet to her hometown of Montreal, where she hangs out with her father (Michael Ironside); meanwhile, back in Ireland, Dermot tries to mentor some wayward local teens—one of whom has a baby.
The juxtaposition of these two plotlines feels extremely literary, as the protagonists work through their relationship hangups via conventionally conjured third parties. Dermot gets to try his hand at surrogate fatherhood, while Abbey gradually comes to terms with her own erratic upbringing. The doubling effects are sophisticated, but also fairly tidy, and Von Carolsfeld’s low-energy direction doesn’t help. While there’s always a case to be made for filmmaking that doesn’t traffic in artificially heightened emotions, the solution isn’t necessarily to bring things in under the bar, either.
Quinn is a fine, relaxed veteran actor, and he’s charming in his scenes opposite young Barry Keoghan as a high-school dropout in need of a guiding hand. It’s telling that as the film goes on, Von Carolsfeld starts spending a disproportionate amount of time with her male star, while relegating Schilling’s scenes to the level of counterpoint; while the choice surely reflects the fact that the film was shot before Schilling’s success in Orange Is The New Black, it also hints that Abbey’s narrative of daughterly acceptance is comparatively less interesting.
In terms of craftsmanship, Stay is handsome enough, with some nice low-light cinematography by Ronald Plante; there’s consistency in the way the film’s color palette is as muted as the underlying drama. Von Carolsfeld showed real skill for this sort of minor-key moviemaking a decade ago in her debut Marion Bridge, a pseudo-Chekhovian chamber drama whose female leads worked together in gently lilting harmony. By comparison, Stay is content to hump one soft, low, not entirely unpleasant note for its duration.