In Steph Green’s debut feature Run and Jump, a family must come to terms with having a father who will never again be the man they knew and loved. After suffering a stroke, causing irreparable damage to his frontal lobe, 38-year-old Conor (Edward MacLiam) is no longer able to understand complex emotions, leaving his family to adapt to their new situation largely without his support. Like Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour, which deals with similar subject matter in an entirely different way, Run and Jump focuses on the impact that a stroke can have on the sufferer’s loved ones rather than on the condition itself.
The film opens with Conor’s return home from a five month hospital stay, but it is not only his altered personality that upsets the family dynamic. His remarkable recovery has attracted the attention of American neuropsychologist Dr Ted Fielding (Will Forte), who moves into the house to gather material for a new case study. Initially, he maintains a clinical detachment to the family, viewing his patient as a scientific phenomenon and everybody else as an obstacle he has to navigate around. However, over time, he becomes closely involved in the family’s everyday lives, gradually assuming the role that Conor has all but left behind.
The catalyst for this change is Vanetia (Maxine Peake), the buoyant, charismatic matriarch left with the responsibility of keeping her family together. Early on, she maintains the belief that, given time and space, Conor will get back to his old self, but it quickly becomes clear that this will not be the case. Despite settling back into his home environment, he fails to fulfil his family responsibilities and alienates his teenage son Lenny (Brendan Morris). The change in him is represented by his woodwork – before his stroke, he earned a living making and selling ornate furniture but now he only carves useless wooden spheres. Vanetia comes to realise that her optimism was partly just a coping mechanism and she is very much in need of some additional support.
From the outset, she tries to integrate Ted in her family’s way of life, inviting him on outings and chiding him for watching everything through his video camera. However, it is only when she discovers marijuana in his bedroom and they share a joint together that they bond closely for the first time. It might be a cliché but in this instance it works, mainly because it is followed up by a beautifully filmed night time bike ride through the Irish countryside. Another moment that could have turned sentimental sees Vanetia trying to persuade Ted to dance with her in the living room. Embarrassed, he steadfastly refuses and watches her with admiration from his chair. Green shows admirable restraint at these vital moments, ensuring their relationship is allowed to grow organically rather than through dramatic force.
As Run and Jump progresses, the family’s other issues get swept aside as they struggle to cope with the consequences of Conor’s stroke. His presence strengthens their need for the man he once was, as well as serving as a constant reminder of what they have lost. The film’s climax comes when Vanetia is given a rare chance to reconnect with her husband but, in trying to take advantage of it, she misses a crucial moment in Lenny’s life. She is not consciously aware of the conflict, but these two scenes are cut together in a way that suggests she should have been. Trying to take on too much, it is easy for her to miss what is really important and she has nobody to help guide her along the way.
The song accompanying this scene is Patrick Watson’s ‘Big Bird in a Small Cage’ and the soundtrack is full of similarly upbeat indie numbers. Music is one way in which Vanetia gets a release from her problems – a broken car stereo causes her no end of stress – and Green reflects this in how she uses it throughout the film. There is an overriding sense of hope despite the circumstances, driven by Peake’s radiant performance and her character’s defiance in the face of anything that goes against her. Her attitude is infectious and the film’s atmosphere, created through vibrant colours, warm sunshine and soft lighting, continually reflects her personality.
Forte, in a role that was shot before his major breakthrough in Nebraska, makes an excellent counterpoint and the two leads are able to carry the film when the script unravels slightly towards the end. Green makes little attempt to engage with the darker side of her subject matter and leaves many of the bigger questions unanswered, although that would go beyond the scope of what is ultimately a light, entertaining film. What Run and Jump does well is refocus the attention on Ted and Vanetia’s relationship without diminishing her connection with her husband and family. At one point near the end, Ted looks back through his case footage and sees only clips of Vanetia – it is clear then that neither of them realised how much they depended on the other until it was too late.
Written by Rob Dickie
Run and Jump was screened by SMHAFF as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, there will be a second screening on Tues 25th, 1.25pm, Cineworld. Tickets availble here