Neuropsychologist Ted Fielding (Will Forte) is on hand to observe — but not necessarily to help — as Valentia (Mazine Peake) struggles to hold her family together after her husband's stroke in Run & Jump.
The face is the same, but the personality is different. It's a sobering, unfair truth that Vanetia (Maxine Peake) must confront about her husband. Again and again, in fact, once he's returned home from the hospital, after months in a coma and recovery in the wake of a rare kind of stroke.
Vanetia and her two children welcome Conor (Edward MacLiam) back to their rural Ireland home, but find themselves caught in an exhausting state between grief and hope; they see a man who looks like the father and husband they know, who knows who they are, who even understands that something dramatic has happened to him, but who exhibits only the occasional flash of behavior that resembles the man he used to be.
They know that the prognosis for Conor is that he won't get better, so even the good days and small victories in integrating New Conor into the household serve as reminders of what won't change — to say nothing of the bad days.
Focusing on this tumultuous period of adjustment, Run & Jump is uneven but admirably authentic in its observation of a family trying to retain something of their past lives while confronting an uncertain future. Another factor in that uncertainty: the presence of one Dr. Ted Fielding (Will Forte), an American neuropsychologist the family has allowed into their home to observe Conor; what recovery he has made, it appears, is medically remarkable.
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Fielding follows each family argument and cognitive challenge with a camera — he's there to document, not intervene. Forte plays the man's professional distance as a practiced habit of restraint, but he's so comfortable in his detachment that he can't see how his lack of outward sympathy, the absence of connection to the family he dines with nightly, is aggravating the situation.
All the responsibilities of peacemaking, breadwinning, and simply keeping everyone safe fall on Vanetia. Her positivity and zest for life buoy her daughter Noni (Ciara Gallagher) and teenage son Lenny (Brendan Morris) through various crisis points — when Conor fixates on being first into the car on a grocery trip, or when he isn't able to advise his son about bullying at school. She threatens to break Ted's camera when his recording becomes too intrusive, it's true, but she does it with a smile.
Run & Jump is co-written by Ailbhe Keogan, whose father sustained a head injury that changed her family dynamic, and the details of the complications in welcoming a changed father home — the ways each family member copes—feel carefully observed. Signs of hope that Conor might recover when he unexpectedly learns and adapts are more damaging to Vanetia than if he seemed definitively someone new, and her thrill at seeing him home fades when she realizes how little she can expect from him.
MacLiam's understated performance shines in moments where Conor's distant eyes light up at the sight of an animal — or burn with profound frustration that he's unable to think and be how he used to.
As Vanetia, Peake is an engine of enthusiasm, but one who needs just the smallest recharge from someone else. As Ted warms to the family, he and she forge a friendship; filled with easy chemistry, the sequences of the two drinking, dancing and riding bikes are some of the most joyful in the film, illuminating the real difference between a Vanetia who's putting on a happy face and and one who's actually feeling happiness.
But those scenes, and those in which Ted begins to help out a bit more, subtly build to the central question of the film: Can the family move on with Conor there only halfway? He's there and he's not; he's Vanetia's husband and he's not.
The last third of the film doesn't take those questions as seriously, piling on the family trauma instead. Some events seem like realistic consequences of misguided coping strategies; others feel more arbitrary, deployed to ratchet up the feeling of drama while placing on hold the interesting conflicts the movie has been exploring.
Though uneven towards its end, Run & Jump explores an arduous experience of loss and limbo without providing pat, easy answers. It also argues that loss need not be without moments of celebration — that the future may be different, but it doesn't have to be without joy.