Actors want somewhere to go, you know? A starting point, and then a narrative road, straight or crooked, to get to somewhere else.
Streaming Friday on Hulu, “Run” gives the very busy and first-rate Sarah Paulson somewhere to go, which is one of its key strengths. It’s a familiar but enjoyably vindictive PG-13 thriller about mother-daughter trust issues. Plus a little psychopathology.
And pharmacology! Running about 85 minutes minus the credits, co-writer and director Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is divided neatly into thirds. The first third ends with mom late-night Googling “household neurotoxins,” never a sign of a safe space. At the two-thirds point, there’s a Big Reveal taking us into the third third, when things bust out into the open. Here, Paulson — lately of “American Horror Story” and “Ratched,” and the queen of murmuring, two-faced reassurance — cracks open what she’s been concealing en route: a mother’s devotion, in extremis.
“Run” is a love story, highly conditional. Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian, who collaborated on the auspicious Chaganty directorial debut “Searching” with John Cho, operate “Run” with a fairly crafty sense of tension. There is nothing funny about the prologue. In an scarily underlit operating room, we see Diane (Paulson), distraught, having just given birth to a premature baby. The prologue sets the initial tone with five on-screen title cards, listing medical conditions and their definitions: arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes and paralysis.
Seventeen years later, daughter Chloe, played by Kiera Allen in a fine, empathetic feature debut, has adapted well to those five conditions. Mother and daughter live in a farmhouse on a quiet road, occasionally going into town for a movie, or a visit to the local pharmacy. Chloe uses a wheelchair, an inhaler and her watchful instincts to cope with her physical challenges. She takes a variety of medications laid out, carefully, by mom, who tends her hydroponic garden with the same fastidiousness.
A new day, Chloe hopes, is coming soon. She awaits news of her University of Washington college application (the film is set in the Seattle area, with the prairie towns of Winnipeg and Selkirk, Manitoba, trying to sub for Washington). Diane’s private life focuses on her daughter, period. “Run” concerns what happens when the chick wants out of the nest, and mother bird would rather that not happen.
There are several shameless sequences of suspense, including Chloe, having been locked in an upstairs room once she begins questioning her caregiver’s intentions, crawling out on the second-story roof to relative safety. The set-up of “Run” is pure victimization-thriller material, although Chloe’s wiles, and her impressive velocity on wheels, prevent this PG-13 affair from getting too sadistic. The film rests solidly on the shoulders of its leading performers. In a pared-down supporting cast, Pat Healy, a Chicago stage alum, stands out as the friendly mail carrier who must choose sides at a rather forced juncture in the narrative.
“Searching,” Chaganty’s previous feature made well-sustained use of its relentless digital storytelling via FaceTime chats, laptop searches and surveillance camera footage. “Run” is devoted to other, more old-fashioned screens. It nods to various influences, from “Night Must Fall” to “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” and rolls on. But as Cho proved in “Searching,” Chaganty knows how to keep the right actors front and center. And it’s the actors’ job, as always in the movies, to finesse the improbable developments, activate the juicy confrontations and try a little honesty with everything in between.
“Run” (3 stars)
Sarah Paulson gets another of her patented creepy roles as the overprotective mother of a young woman living with disabilities (Kiera Allen) who wants to break out on her own. This makes mother very, very angry.
Rating: PG-13, for disturbing thematic content, some violence/terror and language
Streaming Friday: Hulu