When one thinks of the great Julie Delpy, her work as an actress is likely what comes to mind for most people. But every couple of years, she reminds the world of her multi-hyphenate status by flexing her muscles as a truly talented filmmaker. Beyond sharing screenwriting credits for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, she’s also written and directed a number of films since 1995. And with her latest outing, My Zoe, she might have come created her strongest work yet, both as an actress and filmmaker.
The film follows a couple played by Delpy herself and Richard Armitage, who while in the process of finalizing a divorce, struggle to balance their commitment as parents. Their only child, Zoe, becomes the only remaining connection that both pulls them together and pushes them apart. As tragedy strikes this tenuous family unit, the film evolves into a tale of emotional and ethical dilemmas that is best left as a surprise. The less you know about the plot, the better.
Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that My Zoe is a drama of epic dramatic proportions. What starts off as a domestic procedural narrative, quickly evolves into an emotional roller coaster with more loops and drops than one would have ever expected. As a filmmaker, Delpy must be commended for her ability to create a sense of looming tension in the background, right from the very beginning. Even though the film starts off with a much brighter disposition, it’s very clear that there’s something else in the air. Happy moments are always punctuated with a reminder that things are not completely fine, yet when the going starts to get rough, the sense of shock and surprise is not even slightly muted.
Part of what makes My Zoe such an intensely visceral experience are the great performances by the two leads. Delpy and Armitage have the ability to both tear up and subdue a scene, and seem to do this with ease. With what transpires throughout the film, you would think that it’d be hard not to resent these characters, but any such feelings are overshadowed by a resounding sense of empathy. The emotional arc that these characters create is one too complex for words, but is felt with complete clarity by the time the credits roll. And as usual, both Gemma Arterton (one of the most underrated actresses currently working, in my opinion) and Daniel Brühl are great in their respective roles. Relative newcomer Sophia Ally (she has a few smaller credits to her name) also shines as the titular Zoe, conveying a well needed brevity of innocence that really anchors the film’s overall narrative.
In the end, My Zoe really becomes a character study of how people deail with ethics and morality in the face of grave tragedy. But what’s right or wrong isn’t judged on the basis of societal or legal norms, it’s judged based purely on human emotion, which is inherently flaw. The film therefore doesn’t cast any judgment on its characters’ decisions, as it clearly establishes a cinematic framework where moral ambiguity is the only sensible default. My Zoe is truly an impressive film from a remarkably talented filmmaker.