Mercury in Retrograde, 2018.
Written and Directed by Michael Glover Smith.
Starring Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, Roxane Mesquida, Shane Simmons, Kevin Wehby, Jack C. Newell, and Andrew Sensenig.
Three couples from Chicago vacation for a weekend at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Over the course of three days in this relationship drama, hidden tensions and secrets slowly come to the surface.
Mercury in Retrograde (the sophomore feature from the North Carolina born/Chicago-based writer and director Michael Glover Smith) begins with an outdoor roundtable reading of astrology horoscopes for each of the six individuals, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that you will want to pay very close attention to have a clear mental image of how the forecasts fit into the characters and the flaws of their relationships. The scene also demands alertness thanks to the unbroken direction complete with swiveling cinematography (courtesy of stellar work from Jason Chiu who has worked on other Chicago oriented projects such as Stephen Cone’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party) capturing reactions to the passages, along with some beautiful Michigan cottage-in-the-woods vacation scenery.
Assuredly, the entire film demands contemplation as it’s an authentic portrayal of problematic relationships, buried unsavory past lives, controlling personalities, understandably secretive details, all of which burn with powerful performances. Remarkably so, Michael Glover Smith is able to balance out these three relationships and their varying degrees of baggage so that neither couple feels as if they are taking center stage; it’s a tightrope act even veteran filmmakers have trouble figuring out. Additionally, each character is fascinating to be around for distinct reasons, although the women are far more interesting than the men. On that note, it needs to be stated that all three female leads (Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, and Roxane Mesquida) dealing with sensitive material deliver phenomenal turns a cut above their male counterparts.
As previously mentioned, Mercury in Retrograde follows three different couples, all in the same circle, heading from Chicago to Michigan for a weekend of relaxation and unwinding involving such activities as disc golf, book club meetings, fine homemade dining, responsible drinking, shopping stops inside the nearest city, and more. Naturally, some of these hobbies are geared more towards men and others women, which is a positive for the feature as it allows everyone to further organically split up into groups, which is where the meat of the realizations regarding satisfaction levels with their romantic partners occurs. There’s also great pleasure in watching subtle changes (and some not so subtle) in behavior when the men and women are together versus when they hanging out inside their own gender.
Essentially, wounds are visible within each relationship, some much deeper than others. Jack (award-winning Chicago based filmmaker Jack C. Newell) and Gorda (Alana Arenas) have been married for 11 years and seem to retain a great level of love for one another (one of the best exchanges in the entire film relates to the pursuit of love and how to hold on to that happiness once the “chase” is over), almost acting as mentors for their friends who haven’t really tested their commitment yet (one of them is five years running but stagnating, while the other is fresh and in the nonstop physical attraction phase). There’s even a moment where Gorda is talking to Peggy (Najarra Townsend) and says “I’m not trying to sound like a mother hen”, but that’s exactly who she is towards her friends, and it’s a wonderful thing. She’s a calm, graceful, caring, and nurturing woman, all qualities that make the conflict within her and Jack’s relationship sadder.
Isabelle (French actress Roxane Mesquida) is unhappy with Richard (Kevin Wehby) and his uncertainty of wanting marriage (he has bought her a ring but has given no indication of intentions behind the act whatsoever), while Peggy and Wyatt (Shane Simmons) are intimate but also distant, unable to have important talks. By the end of the film, it’s clear that Wyatt doesn’t know her at all; there’s an emotional outpour from Peggy that is incredibly raw and genuine for anyone that has suffered under similar circumstances, but one that will deeply affect all viewers. The decision from Smith to orchestrate all of these life-changing awakenings during a vacation of all things pays off, as even during leisurely bonding it’s always evident from body language that there’s friction between all three couples in some form. The fact that the men get feelings off their chest indirectly by analyzing a book for their club discussion whereas the women outright spill out their thoughts in tears also comes across as an intriguing commentary on how different genders address emotions. There’s a stubborn pride in too may men prohibiting them from opening up.
It’s a fascinating study of relationships in different stages, and how issues are always arising. Some problems may carry more weight than others, but all are pertinent to a poignant conversation where Jack gives a nugget of wisdom that love is about asking yourself if you can look at the other person and accept them for who they are along with the fact that they will be with you for the rest of your life. When one can find that kind of love, secrets small or big become unnecessary, as communication (the most crucial ingredient to any relationship) comes effortlessly. Strive for that with your significant other. The person for you is the one that’s easiest to open up to, exposing your soul and true self.
Mercury in Retrograde may ramble occasionally and take a bit to reach its profound messages, but this is aesthetically pleasing, strongly written and directed, superb work with an outstanding ensemble. It’s a must watch for anyone that values relationships and the definition of love. And it’s worth saying one more time, the trio of women are unequivocally absorbing. The film should be available on streaming devices towards the end of the year, but for those fortunate enough to be in the Chicago area it will have screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center accompanied by Q&A sessions with Michael Glover Smith, and don’t delay looking up ticket information on the website as they are expected to sell out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com