Just as there are many ways people deal with cancer, there are many ways to make a film about those people handling it in their own way, often engineered to jerk the most tears rather than provoke the most thought. That is not the case with “Lily,” the debut feature of Matt Creed which doesn’t resort to upping the drama or the comedy for one to access the deceptively complex character study of a young woman in stasis following her recovery from something profound.
A graceful portrait with a perfectly calibrated lead performance from Amy Grantham, “Lily,” like its central character isn’t going to let itself be defined by the disease, instead delicately unfolding as a story about its titular figure who has taken herself out of commission, not only because she’s taking her time in remission but because she’s attached herself to a much older French boyfriend (Simon Chaput) whose circle of friends is much different than hers. Lily’s past remains cryptic throughout, established with an opening shot of her rotating in a CT scan machine and subsequently, a visit to an art gallery where she used to work, but Creed only fills in details when they become necessary, creating the same fluctuating rhythm of life that Lily’s actually experiencing. Remnants of a bohemian life creep in, but now that Lily’s idea of a busy night is a movie she wants to watch and a new pair of pajamas to break in, the film sets up a conflict between her inclination to express herself as an artist, a desire for privacy and the need to replace cancer survivor with a more personally gratifying means of accomplishment.
Although once she finds a pair of tap shoes in a thrift store, the fear sets in that “Lily” might drift into something twee, the film dances arounds that potential minefield by introducing other tripwires – an estranged father, hints of burned bridges pre-cancer that Lily might not mend, and a battle against her age where she’s expected to have her future set when her affairs are hardly settled from the past. Generally, the film is light on its feet, unfolding in the impressionistic style of storytelling that’s been in vogue lately for low-budget character studies, yet “Lily” takes shape through Grantham’s determined turn, said to be inspired by the actress and co-writer’s own battle with cancer, that never feels inauthentic as the character’s resolve can shift from vulnerable to steely at a moment’s notice, as well as cinematographer and editor Brett Jutkiewicz’s work at both ends of the production process to keep things in moderation. As Jutkiewicz did with the comedy in the recent “Swim Little Fish Swim,” the drama is illuminated rather than highlighted, with Creed and Grantham’s script operating at a nice, steady build.
While the pace may prove slightly tedious for some, it’s just as likely to sneak up on others, unexpectedly moving when all the pieces of where Lily’s life might go begin to fall into place at the same rate as the audience begins to understand the full magnitude of where she’s been. It’s a nifty narrative feat of chronology that comes off naturally as does nearly every other aspect of “Lily,” a film that captures the elusive feeling of uncertainty when there’s no such element present in its storytelling.