Film Festival review: Foe

Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal star in this sci-fi film that sees a couple’s life upended by the arrival of a stranger at their farm in America’s mid-west.

Oct 23, 2023, updated Oct 23, 2023
Saoirse Ronan as Henrietta and Paul Mescal as Junior in the futuristic film ' Foe'. Photo: supplied

Saoirse Ronan as Henrietta and Paul Mescal as Junior in the futuristic film ' Foe'. Photo: supplied

There is a dystopian set-up: it is 2065 and planet Earth is running out of everything. But fears of another story about marauding feral armies searching for stashes of food are calmed by the peaceful setting and a young couple going about their chores on an isolated farm.

Although it was filmed in Australia (and the pink salt flats of South Australia), the setting for Foe is the American mid-west. Junior (Paul Mescal) is a fifth-generation landowner and he and wife Henrietta (Saoirse Ronan) are keeping the worst of the global deprivations at bay, other than recycling bath water onto the trees. They manage the farm and he works in a garish chicken factory, while she is a waitress.

Then trouble arrives. Their homestead is flooded with light as a self-driving car delivers Terrance (Aaron Pierre) from the government who tells them, calmly enough, that one of them has been drafted to live in space for a while as part of a planet-saving study. Junior has ticked all the boxes and he will be leaving in a couple of years. But Henrietta won’t have to manage on her own; they will supply her with an AI replica of Junior while the real thing is away.

The film, co-written and directed by Garth Davis (Lion), is based on the much-admired 2018 book by Iain Reid whose themes touched on emotional connections and empathy, including the treatment of robots. So it is hard to know why this drifts so quickly into lassitude and emerges as a just-watchable episode of Black Mirror.

Mescal and Ronan, Ireland’s hottest young talents, work hard at the material but the film veers drearily between futuristic sci-fi and scenes from a marriage. Junior and Henrietta are tired of each other as they work at everything but their relationship. They have no social life and the isolation of a secure existence is starting to shred their togetherness. Somewhere along the way the couple lost the simple joy in each other’s company – so much so that Junior asks Henrietta not to wear the T-shirt she had on when they met because it is too painful a reminder.

Two years after the initial contact, Terrance moves in and starts probing, ostensibly to learn more so the Junior replica will capture Mescal’s essence. Having a stranger in their midst derails the couple’s day-to-day lives, but seems also to unlock some of what they lost.

The gut-punch twist, followed by another lesser one, should make us question identity and how relationships between people are infinitely malleable and nuanced. Maybe identity is so intangible it can never really be harnessed?

With AI on the rise, this should be interesting, but the whole thing feels like such a simulacrum that by the time the credits rolled, not even the name, Foe, makes any sense.

Foe premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and opens in cinemas on November 2. Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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