As Dara returns home, her breathing is halted and heavy, signs of an inevitable tension after spending two years away. She explores the space as if she’s entering it for the first time, an alien in her own home. In the bathroom, she stares at herself in the mirror, and even her own reflection seems foreign. The notion of a “homecoming” is generally warm and cathartic, but though we don’t yet know where Dara has been, she seems more lost now, in this once familiar place. As she wanders through room after room, she finally rests in front of a piano. She strokes the keys tentatively, but the melody is clear. It’s as if she’s reminding herself how to play again.
Learning to play again is the central metaphor in Like a House on Fire, a film about how painful and difficult it is to reacclimate to that which most would consider a “normal life.” That’s the situation Dara (Sarah Sutherland) finds herself in after spending two years in a mental health facility. What triggered her initial entry isn’t totally clear; what’s quite clear, however, is that it left those closest to her feeling abandoned and resentful. “I’m back, and I’m okay,” Dara tells her husband, Danny (Jared Abrahamson), whose hostility indicates he isn’t inclined to believe her. Dara and Danny share a daughter, and they’re actually still married, though he has since moved in with, and impregnated, another woman. Nevertheless, there seems a yearning behind Danny’s outward coldness towards Dara. “Can I call you now?” he asks. “Am I allowed?”
The fissures in relationships run far beyond Dara’s and Danny’s, and far deeper than just the two years Dara spent addressing her mental health. Everyone in Dara’s life seems to speak only in vague pleasantries, as if to paper over years of suppressed pain. For a film this somber and serious, the title functions as a sort of playful subversion of itself, since no one gets along like a house on fire. No one even seems to be on the same wavelength. “You look rested, “ Dara’s dad (Michael Buchanan) tells her, filling the silent void between them. “I’m exhausted,” she replies. That momentary exchange is the entire film in microcosm – people who are intimately connected but have lost all connection, if they ever had any true connection at all. In choosing to take the time to care for her mental well-being, perhaps Dara, whose long absence now prompts awkward side-eye from everyone around her, is the most well-adjusted of them all.
Sutherland’s performance invites a world of suggestion that fills in its inherent quiet. She is a wonderful conduit for this character who seems adrift in what otherwise appears a secure environment, completely misunderstood by everyone she cares about to such an extent that when she looks in the mirror, she seems to be searching for the person everyone else expects her to be. Her sequences of solitude are among the film’s strongest, as writer-director Jesse Noah Klein keenly depicts the external silence surrounding a lonely soul. Ariel Methot-Bellemare’s elegant cinematography immerses the audience in Dara’s internal struggle, juxtaposing the warmth of connection against the starkness of loneliness, using a drifting focal plane as a reflection of Dara’s emotional dips.
If there’s a curious flaw in Klein’s screenplay, it’s the decision to resolutely seek symmetrical balance between all the characters, as if to tell the viewer when Dara deserves to be shamed and when she deserves to be redeemed. It’s an unnecessary lack of ambiguity in a film that otherwise thrives on the unsaid implications of very complicated relationships. Like a House on Fire ultimately succeeds because it hangs on those implications, listens to the silences, and observes these wounded people work messily through their broken lives. The notes aren’t always pitch-perfect, but they are learning to play again.