‘Clara’ Sees the Universe as a Big Place Where Small Stories Still Matter

In the age of Avengers: Endgame, which stretches again the ever-expanding concept of the Big Movie, there happily remains room for films that are deliberately not big at all.

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Clara, a 2018 Canadian film that hits theaters Friday, isn’t exactly small. As a central plotline it tackles the search for intelligent life in the actual physical universe, one of the few places still larger than the Marvel Comic Universe.

But Clara, which stars Patrick J. Adams and Troian Bellisario, doesn’t repeatedly explode into wars of the worlds or epic showdowns over mass extinction.

It’s the story of two wounded souls who find in each other a path to healing — a familiar setup that, it’s true, often can lead to something predictable and gooey.

When done with style and offbeat twists, however, it can create characters we come to like, and remind us that people on the big screen — or the little screen, in this age of watching movies on our phones — don’t have to tower above us. They can be precisely life-sized.

Adams, best known from the TV series Suits, plays Dr. Isaac Bruno, a researcher obsessed with finding a planet that could support life similar to that on Earth.

We learn in his first extended scene that he’s not a people person, and we soon start to learn why not.

He seems to have one semi-close friend, Dr. Charles Durant (Ennis Esmer, better known as Rich Dotcom on Blindspot). Durant is also a colleague, a few rungs up the ladder, and he too seeks another life-supporting planet, though unlike Isaac he seems to have a life on this one.

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When Isaac decides he will plunge full-time into the planet chase, he seeks an unpaid assistant. Clara (Bellisario, best known from Pretty Little Liars) turns out to be the only applicant, and while he suspects she’s homeless and mainly was drawn to the promise of a place to stay, he doesn’t have a lot of options. She’s hired.

We get little clues she has serious issues, too, and gradually they open up a little to each other.

At this point, anyone who has ever seen more than one romantic drama ever is pretty sure he or she knows where this is going. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t go there.

They do make some progress on the planet thing. Toward that end, we see periodic flashes of colorful, brilliantly lit graphics that suggest the breadth and promise of the universe. But if Clara tips its hat to Spielberg, it doesn’t have even pocket change from Spielberg’s budget, and that turns out to be perfectly okay. We don’t need showers of light to convince us the universe is a wondrous place.

Similarly on the human relations front, which is the one about which we care more, Clara uses suggestions more than declarations. She chips at his walls, deliberately. He chips at hers without knowing it.

Soon after we have met them, we want to know what will happen to them, which is the win every movie needs.

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Without getting into spoilers, Clara also does something else very cool for those of us who like our science fiction elements tethered to tangible things. It raises the possibility that the way we might ultimately communicate with sentient beings from other planets isn’t spoken language, but music, and perhaps even music that we know as songs from popular culture, not some scientifically formulated series of notes decipherable only to musicologists.

Clara isn’t life-changing. It says some things that are worth remembering about the lives we already have.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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