Burnout culture is a very real thing in the world today. The constant fear of falling behind, or of losing momentum, causes us to work harder and harder until we just can’t cope any more. It often feels like the hamster wheel will keep spinning, whether we’re able to keep running on it or not. That’s the idea at the centre of Georgia Parris’ drama Mari, which follows the head of an interpretive dance troupe, who is taken away by a family emergency in the run-up to a huge show.

Real dancer Bobbi Jene Smith plays Charlotte, who has moved away from her family’s rural cottage to pursue her creative career in London. She’s hard at work on her biggest ever show, when she learns that her beloved grandmother – the title character – is in hospital, just days from passing away. Charlotte puts rehearsals on hold to rush to her bedside, where she finds her sister Lauren (Madeleine Worrall) and mother Margot (Phoebe Nicholls) in less than welcoming moods.

The central tension here is that Charlotte has chosen one life path – a career-focused one – while Lauren, married with a child, has taken another. Each is slightly resentful of the other and, when Lauren learns that Charlotte has unexpectedly fallen pregnant and is questioning whether to actually have the child, it adds another layer of friction to their dysfunctional relationship. This is an environment of passive-aggressive comments and furtive glances, where issues are allowed to simmer beneath the surface.

Mari Bobbi Jene Smith

Unfortunately, there’s too much simmer here and not enough actual narrative meat. Parris strips back the dialogue and the visual style for much of the narrative, saving the flair for a number of engagingly bizarre dance sequences. Smith’s own expertise in the dance field brings these scenes to life, but the film leans itself too heavily on her talents, in lieu of any exposition. This is a narrative full of voids, with the storytelling unwilling to fill in the gaps of what’s left unsaid by the characters.

There’s no denying the dedication of Parris’ visual storytelling, which is certainly in full flow during the dance sequences. But Mari is most engaging as a character study, and it’s those scenes that are too often absent from the movie. The best moments are stripped-down, simple dialogue scenes – a row between sisters; a conversation in which Charlotte says she’s worried about “slowing down… stopping” at this point in life – rather than the splashy, overlong sequences of admittedly impressive dancing.

There’s a sense of mixed priorities at play here. This is a movie about splintered family and the pressures of life, but the pacing is perhaps a little too deliberate and patient to fully convey that, focusing on the eye-catching dance sequences instead. While the recent, similarly-themed drama The Farewell conjured a portrait of a vibrant family unit contemplating imminent bereavement, this one feels inorganic and mannered. Like an elegant dance routine, it’s a little too perfect to feel real.

Mari Bobbi Jene Smith

Dir: Georgia Parris

Scr: Georgia Parris

Cast: Bobbi Jene Smith, Madeleine Worrall, Phoebe Nicholls, Peter Singh

Prd: Emma Duffy

DOP: Adam Scarth

Music: Peter Gregson

Country: UK

Year: 2018

Run time: 94 mins

Mari is in UK cinemas now.

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