A woman’s troubled psychological journey begins at what might be her final destination in “Stromboli,” a Dutch self-help dramedy of the “Eat, Pray Love” variety, performed in English.
It’s a vigorously edited-down version of the novel by Saskia Noort, a Dutch writer known for thrillers, that touches on childhood trauma, adult guilt and what happens after the breaking point that sends our heroine — Sara — fleeing for a volcanic island escape.
A lightweight, hedonistic opening that suggests this “Eat Pray” will be reduced to binge drinking and boinking, pardon my English. But in short order we see that this isn’t “escape” for Sara (Elise Schaap of “Valentino”). it’s a mad, heedless flight. She’s running from something awful, and her flashbacks only hint at what that might be.
A drunken Sara acts-out on the ferry to Stromboli, which we gather she’s visited before. She’s climbing on the railings, and grabbing the snack bar cook for a rough-and-ready quickie back in the kitchen.
Staggering ashore, she renews her acquaintance with the old gent who rents her a cliffside cottage, and her friendship with his donkey, Gustav. She fills her mineral water bottle with vodka, staggers to the volcanic beach and all but dozes off between volcanic tremors.
A paler-than-pale British stranger (Tim McInnerny of “Notting Hill” and “Blackadder”) staggers up, and they strike up a brief, boozy friendship, one that ends when he returns to his “group.” Sara, meanwhile, has lost her bag — all her money, ID and phone. She has to break into the cottage, which she drunkenly trashes. That gets her kicked out, and there’s only so much pub crawling she can do on the barter system.
Awakening in a church, she is “rescued” by Jens (Christian Hillborg), who takes her home to his little hotel. It’s now a retreat for people looking for a sort of life-cleanse, a psychological detox in which giving up booze, etc., for their stay is merely “urged” not ordered.
Jens and Thandi (Neerja Naik) are gurus/counselors. This is where Harold (McInnerny) belonged, with Anna Chancellor, Pieter Embrechts, Taz Munyaneza and others in his “group.” Troubled Sara, dodging calls from the husband she insists she’s dumped, unable to reach her 14 year-old daughter, is added to the activities — group dance, group meals and role-playing group therapy.
You can guess some of what follows. Everybody has a secret shame/sorrow/regret. Some folks will “couple” up. And the role-playing that helps them come to grips with it is pretty traumatizing and extreme in nature. Some will have breakthroughs, but not before Sara acts-out some more — sleeping around, snorting this, insulting that.
The most impressive element to this Michiel van Erp film (“Open Seas” was his) is the way it shifts direction and tone so abruptly that it could give you whiplash. One minute, we’re staggering through the streets of town with Sara and the donkey Gustav enlisted as her pack animal, and the next she’s reluctantly falling into “let’s get to work on YOU.”
Unlike the novel, we don’t see what she went through that put her on that ferry, three sheets to the wind. Joining the story already in progress (in media res) makes it more interesting and more challenging. As Schaap makes a beguiling drunk, we buy in and start to figure out what’s going on.
Others may have more tolerance of “the process” that she finds herself immersed in, its self-help speak and discomfiting, lawsuit-inviting “shock therapy.” The picture wades into that and lost me, or at least lost my interest.
More could have been managed with the “eruption” metaphor that the Stromboli setting invites. Tremors, and all Sara and Harold can agree on is that if this is indeed “the big one,” no one will miss him and her daughter “will be glad” she’s gone.
I appreciated the film’s brisk, breezy way of introducing characters and getting down to business in “treating” their trauma. But I missed that lighter tone, which frankly would have suited the goofy nature of the therapy that Sara endures to get her to reveal and then let go of her “secret.” As “deep” as they wanted to treat this story, it’s never more than a facile, glib gloss of trauma and its treatment.
Mental health is no joke. But ways of treating it can be, and that’s the only kind of “closure” an 85 minute dramedy with sex and drugs and funny drunks and possibly unlicensed therapist “gurus” can provide.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, sex, nudity profanity
Cast: Elise Schaap, Christian Hillborg, Anna Chancellor, Pieter Embrechts, Taz Munyaneza, Neerja Naik and Tim McInnerny
Credits: Michiel van Erp, scripted by Roos Ouwehand and Paula van der Oest, based on a novel by Saskia Noort. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:25