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Heather Young's Murmur Explores Aging, Addiction, and Animal-Human Connection [Slamdance Film Festival]

An older woman with short hair cuddles a dog tightly
Shan MacDonald as DONNA in MURMUR

*This review originally published on Elements of Madness.*

Heather Young’s Murmur (2019) explores aging, addiction, and the emotional pull of the animal-connection through the story of Donna as she works in an animal shelter for court-mandated community service. This first full-length feature film directed by Young won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize at TIFF 2019 and the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance 2020. The work extends a 6-minute short Young created in 2014, called Howard and Jean, that centered on the relationship between an older lady and a small chihuahua.

The documentary hybrid plays in a space somewhere between fiction and reality, with unscripted dialogue, nonprofessional actors often playing versions of themselves, and an unhurried pace. Murmur leaves viewers free to observe and respond to Donna’s story without direct guidance. And make no mistake; Donna’s story evokes a response.

Donna (Shan MacDonald), an older lady, tends to her tidy home with the same ritualistic care she uses to get ready for the day to come. Her daily routines enable Donna to feel useful and productive, despite the fact that she’s an addict. In a telling sequence, Donna struggles to open a bottle of wine and ends up using oven mitts and a hammer to get at the precious liquid therein. In contrast to her ordered world, her personal life is in shambles and her only family, a daughter, refuses to return her numerous texts and calls.

A woman holding a dog looks at her reflection in a reflective wall
Shan MacDonald as DONNA in MURMUR

After being convicted of a DWI, Donna begins working for a local animal shelter during the winter season in Canada. When she discovers that one of the dogs is scheduled to be euthanized, Donna intervenes and decides to take him home, despite his many health issues. Charlie, an aging dog with a heart murmur, scaly skin condition, and a permanently lolled tongue, is in his last days, the vet insists, but Donna is vehement that Charlie deserves a chance. Charlie’s arrival at the house provides the emotional connection Donna has been missing. With tenderness and care, Donna tends to his many needs. All seems well, but like any addict, Donna wants more of this new good thing, and levels up to a cat, and then a rodent, soon finding her new addiction.

Although Young’s minimalist show-don’t-tell storytelling allows freedom in how viewers can interpret what they are seeing, her many deliberate choices cast a filter that will subconsciously influence thoughts. Shot in a rarely used 4:3 aspect ratio, Donna is in almost every frame of the story, centering her experience as the most important, despite the fact that she is older, unconventional looking, and female, a combination of traits that rarely gets depicted on screen. While Donna often makes choices that undermine her own best interest, the framing of the shots lends her story dignity. The 4:3 aspect ratio heightens Donna’s isolation and the coldness of the people around her. For example, even though Donna is shown having conversations with various authority figures, like a vet, addiction counselor, and her own medical doctor, the camera often only shows Donna, enforcing the fact that Donna is alone and that things are happening to her. The authority figures are faceless, similar to the adults in the Peanuts comics. They have no humanity. Only Donna matters; her face is the one we see.

The cropped view also prevents the viewer from seeing the whole picture, rather drawing attention to the little details, such as Donna’s hands gently lathering Charlie with the special shampoo, Donna blow-drying Charlie’s coat, Donna drawing a circle and cutting out a section of a disposable diaper to make room for Charlie’s tail. Through these snapshot moments, the viewer is drawn into the scene, further aligning us with the isolated Donna.

A woman with a dog in her lap rides a bus home
Shan MacDonald as DONNA in MIRROR

Our special view into Donna’s world is also intercut with scenes that show us the routines of life at the animal shelter. Like Donna, the animals receive care of all kinds. Donna visits the nail salon, walks on a treadmill for her physical, and attends classes and therapy to address her DWI conviction. She requires care. Similarly, the animals at the shelter undergo a variety of procedures: one dog is getting spayed, another is put under for a dental cleaning, still another has an ultrasound and gives birth to puppies. Donna and Charlie both walk on treadmills at different points of the film. The views of Donna intercut with these animals creates a clear parallel between them. Like Donna, the animals are on the margin, forgotten and unseen, but full of life.

The shelter itself is the perfect symbol of the claustrophobic, cold, unfeeling world that has discarded Donna. The walls, floors, and fixtures are an industrial “concrete gray.” The people and procedures that take place inside seem ritualistic, efficient, and devoid of compassion. The staff deliver and share directions and information with no affect. As framed by the camera, only the animals and Donna reflect energy, passion, and emotion. Like Donna, the animals are discarded, unwanted, and disposable. Through these many directorial choices, Heather Young has created a story about a mature woman in the later years of her life that is told with empathy and yet doesn’t shy away from pointing out Donna’s flaws. Her addiction has created an estranged relationship with her daughter, whom she clearly loves. Rather than listen to animal care professionals, Donna takes home these animals in search of the elusive connection she so desperately desires. 

Heather Young joins the ranks of filmmakers who choose to tell the stories of people who live on the margins of society, whose stories are often neglected in favor of shinier, glamorous takes. Murmur follows that tradition by shedding light into the lives of ordinary older people, still wanting connection yet often left to find it where they can.

Murmur screened during the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

Murmur movie poster