The standout draw of this quirky indie is that rubber-faced funnyman Will Forte tries his hand at straight-faced drama. In Steph Green's feature directorial debut Run and Jump, Forte plays an American doctor working on a study focused on Conor Casey, a 38-year old Irish family man and carpenter whose brain was irreparably damaged by a stroke. After weeks in the hospital, the man returns home to his family with observing doctor in tow for better or worse.
At a welcome home family dinner, the whole lively Casey clan is in attendance. There's Conor's father, gruff but loving, his doting mother, his precocious little girl who has a fondness for casually donning animal costumes, his teen son Lenny (talented newcomer Brendan Morris) who faces regular bullying, and Conor's loving wife Vanetia (Maxine Peake) who bravely attempts to remain chipper and hopeful no matter what. The stroke has left Conner partially paralyzed, but the former carpenter is still quite skilled with wood. Unfortunately, he's lost all interest in crafting marketable chairs, using any wood he can get his hands on to form as many wooden spheres as he can, much to the frustration of his family who depends on him.
Weeks roll by and Conor shows little progress, occasionally snarling homophobic remarks at his probably gay son and avoiding his wife's need for comfort and conversation. While Vanetia initially resents her family's private trauma being documented by the doctor's snooping video camera lens, she and Ted begin to connect, him playing the willful surrogate husband, making up for the companionship she's lost. How far this friendship will develop becomes this drama's main thrust as it becomes clear Conor will never be who he once was. Central to this conflict is a moral ambiguity that Green is careful with. While Vanetia's friends and family might resent her taboo flirtations with Ted, the director doesn't judge.
Still, Green's touch at times is too light as pockets of character development seem to be missing or taken for granted. One slim montage passes, and already Ted and Lenny are deeply bonded to the point where Ted is seen as no threat to his father, but a welcomed dad substitute. A few shared laughs and Vanetia is considering uprooting her marriage and family. However, grounded my poignant and powerful performances from its ensemble, Run and Jump is full of life and emotion that smooth many of its rough exposition edges.
Forte is affable as a socially awkward doctor in love, but his overall performance is a little lackluster. Cloaked in a beard, he seems to have stripped away too many colors from his usual performance style to do this drama. So, while charming, his portrayal is ultimately a little flat. Still, he's affecting and shows promise here, so I'd be down to see Forte's second shot at drama in a minute.
While the rest of the cast offers solid and engaging turns, the real standout is leading lady Peake. The layers of pathos, anger, humor, and purposeful optimism she brings to the role of Vanetia is astonishing, and makes it impossible to disengage from her character's unenviable decision. All told, Run and Jump offers a bittersweet but warm story of love and loss, propelled by an excellent cast of earnest and gamely vulnerable performers.
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