For a brief period of time, surrounding the 2004 festival premiere and commercial release of Garden State, his critically lauded writing and directing debut, it seemed as though Zach Braff’s career would be taking a hairpin turn, away from the manufactured, hyper-realized silliness of Scrubs and into the hinterlands of auteurdom. This pivot, and Braff’s second feature film behind the camera, was put on hold — at least for a while — by the life-support extension of the last two seasons of his hit sitcom, which came about late in the TV re-up cycle, and found Braff working a reduced load, handing off the baton to a younger generation of medical internists.
One of the movies he completed during this timeframe, however, provides an illuminating glimpse of the sort of subject matter that stirs and captures Braff’s interest. The High Cost of Living, from writer-director Deborah Chow, unfolds in French-speaking Montreal, where scruffy drug-peddler Henry (Braff), an American ex-pat living on an expired visa, leaves a party one night, makes a wrong turn and runs down pregnant Nathalie (Isabelle Blais). Panicked, and with his car full of all sorts of illegally obtained prescription pills, Henry drives off, and leaves her. He later returns, striking up a complicated relationship.
The High Cost of Living is vaguely reminiscent of Don Roos’ Bounce, another movie which addressed commingled grief and guilt, albeit in a slightly more pleasant or at least tempered fashion. While it avoids some of the big dramatic blowouts one might suspect given a logline synopsis of the story, Chow’s film is still fairly downbeat, and swollen with melancholy. If there’s a miscalculation, it lies a bit in the movie’s focus, which, had it been channeled more discretely through Nathalie’s eyes, could have proven more rewarding.
That said, The High Cost of Living is a complex and well acted story about awakened integrity and the sometimes hard, concrete costs that come with honesty, rendered all the more interesting for the jumbled sociocultural backdrop against which it unfolds. The fact that Henry is American, Nathalie and her husband Michel (Patrick Labbe) are French-speaking immigrants, and another key character and his family are Asian gives the movie an almost subliminal, take-it-or-leave-it undercurrent of political allegory, if one wants to engage the material on that level. Cinematographer Claudine Sauve, meanwhile, trades in a muted color palette, awash in blues, greys and darker greens, that works in concert with the material to effect a depressive, melancholic tone, where the accumulated burdens of life leave their mark, even when the “right” decision is made. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Tribeca Film, unrated, 92 minutes)