Retrograde (2023)

Directed by: Adrian Murray
Distributed by: Cinedigm

Written by Michael Clawson

“Retrograde” is a small movie in two ways. First, there’s the matter of the movie’s scale: its runtime is a mere seventy-four minutes, its budget was clearly modest, its few locations and production design are elegantly ordinary. There’s also the matter of the incident around which the film’s entire story revolves, which is more inconsequential than what other filmmakers might dare to build a whole movie around. “Retrograde” opens on the side of a highway, where Molly (Molly Reisman) has just been pulled over. With her new roommate awkwardly waiting in the passenger seat, she gets a traffic citation for reckless driving. If you knew nothing about “Retrograde” beforehand, you might understandably assume that Molly would move past the annoyance of a $300 ticket, and the plot would get on to more substantial issues. But this clever, dryly funny character study is all about how Molly simply can’t let it go, and how her unrelenting efforts to contest the ticket nearly consume her.

It’s not the cost of the ticket that irks Molly so intensely. What upsets Molly – and what compels her to explain the incident to everyone around her, whether they want to hear it or not –  is that, in her opinion, she was not at fault. In her mind, all of the bureaucratic hurdles she has to leap in order to contest the ticket, which comically disrupt her daily life, are worth the trouble if she can influence her own fate and correct an injustice against her. At its core, “Retrograde” is a movie about a young woman with a deep desire for self-determination. Unlike her new roommate, an amateur astrologist who is more than comfortable in her belief that we’re all at the whims of greater forces, Molly wants control of her destiny. For Molly, to challenge the traffic ticket is to resist a feeling of powerlessness, to assert her agency.

Reisman’s fascinating performance is one of containment. Molly doesn’t hurl insults or fly into rages; her anger and desperation bubbles beneath a resolutely polite façade, earning her an A+ in passive aggression. The cringe comedy of Molly’s character is amplified by the steadiness of the camera, which writer/director Adrian Murray often keeps still and at a slight distance from his actors. When the camera is stationed in the backseat of Molly’s car, listening to her efforts to hire a lawyer about a traffic ticket (a very funny bit), it’s as if the camera were a friend who feels too uneasy to speak up and suggest that Molly is going overboard. Elsewhere, the camera’s gaze can feel compassionate. Molly is imperfect, at times even cruel, but a wonderful aspect of “Retrograde” is that it never mocks or judges her. When the camera finds Molly in her car again near the film’s end, its presence exudes empathy. That it waits with her while she processes all that has happened is a small but powerful gesture.

“Retrograde” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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