With “Delia’s Gone”, writer-director Robert Budreau combines crime thriller elements with a compelling character study to form a story that works as both a murder mystery and a pointed small town introspection. But it’s the man at the center, Louis, who makes it all work, and it’s through his eyes that we’re able to see and understand the small but progressively ugly world he’s forced to navigate. And it’s through him that the themes of loss, injustice, and resilience boil to surface.
Over the years filmmakers haven’t shied away from portraying autism in their movies. But while these films have been sensitive and respectful in their depictions, they often make a similar mistake. They hone in on the external traits rather than the intense internal struggles that mark their day-to-day lives.
“Delia’s Gone” doesn’t fully avoid those trappings. In fact much of star Stephan James’ lead performance relies on those very external tics and verbal barriers. But Budreau’s script builds a story around Louis that gives us a sense of the chaos brewing in his mind as he tries to process his circumstances and curb his growing anxiety. It’s far from comprehensive and there are a few times where we lose that internal connection with Louis. But Budreau is both thoughtful and sincere in his treatment, and James (so good in “If Beale Street Could Talk”) keeps his performance grounded and true.
Set in small-town Ohio, Louis (a gentle soul with ASD) lives with his troubled sister Delia (Genelle Williams). The two are close, but Delia’s struggles with addiction is taking a toll on her. One evening she surprises Louis with news that she has decided to leave town. Upset and against his better judgement, Louis gets into Delia’s booze cabinet. “It makes me mean,” he says of alcohol early on – a line of dialogue we’re clearly meant to catalog in our minds.
Louis wakes up the next morning and finds blood on his hands and the living room ransacked. He goes to check on Delia only to find her dead on the kitchen floor. Within minutes the town’s sheriff Fran (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei) and her deputy, Bo (Paul Walter Hauser) arrive and take Louis into custody. With little investigation and even less defense, Louis is convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.
The story then jumps ahead seven years with Louis having served his sentence and now living in a special care facility. He’s surprised by a visit from Stacker Cole (Travis Fimmel), a man from his hometown. Stacker is a man burdened by guilt and looking for some degree of absolution. He tells Louis he has information about the night Delia died. But before he can share it, Louis gets aggressively upset and Stacker is asked to leave. Shortly after, Louis leaves the facility and sets off for his hometown, determined to find answers about his sister’s death.
From there Budreau ramps up the mystery side of his story as Louis follows crumbs of information that lead him to other players intent on hiding the truth. Fran re-enters the picture, now as a state police detective, as does Bo who replaced her as sheriff. Everyone we meet in the second half seems to know more than they’re willing to share, and while we begin to get an idea of where the story is heading, Budreau is able to keep things under wraps until the finale. And while the reveal may not have the jolt it could have, what transpires packs a pretty good punch.
With Budreau’s deliberate pacing and strong character focus along with terrific performances throughout (especially from James and Fimmel), “Delia’s Gone” turns out to be a well-conceived and dramatically rich drama. And while I couldn’t always make sense of certain characters, they feel very much rooted in this world. And we do too, which is yet another reason the movie works so well. “Delia’s Gone” is out now in theaters. “Delia’s Gone” is out now in theaters.