'Maya' Review: Mia Hansen-Løve Falters Slightly With Familiar Drama [TIFF]

Mia Hansen-Løve has recently emerged as a major director on the international scene with a set of empathic dramas. In her films, characters process sea changes in their lives with a patience and even-handedness absent from other works about similarly momentous life events. Hansen-Løve understands that most people's lives move in inches, not miles. She knows how to glean significant insights about human response under duress by analyzing these small yet meaningful moments.

With the possible exception of Eden, her decades-spanning tale of a Llewyn Davis-like also-ran in the French garage music scene, Hansen-Løve's Maya represents her most sprawling and weighty canvas to date. The film follows France journalist Gabriel Dahan (Roman Kolinka) after his release from Syrian captivity and his gradual drift back towards some semblance of normalcy. While Hansen-Løve avoids homecoming or PTSD clichés in charting Gabriel's convalescence, she does stumble into a few other tropes of (particularly Western male) recovery once he leaves Europe behind.

Determined not to become the victim who carries his trauma forever, Gabriel's "therapy takes a different turn," as he puts it. He's disquieted by his inability to connect with his old girlfriend or serve any function besides quiet wallflower at social events, though not enough to erupt visibly. News reports of his return home suggest he and the photographer released along with him can simply fade from view. Gabriel, on the other hand, has a different editing transition in mind – a hard cut to India where he can keep his hands and his mind busy.

It's here where he begins to perk up and starts making his first steps towards rehabilitation. By reconnecting with elements of his past, Gabriel can tentatively begin to forge his way towards some semblance of a future. A key figure in this uncertain journey is the titular character, Aarshi Banerjee's Maya, the daughter of Gabriel's godfather. A young woman with knowledge, curiosity and a real sense of how to navigate the spaces she inhabits, Maya makes for a pleasant and frequent companion for Gabriel as he begins his stay in India. She brings out his curiosity and personality through casual conservations that gently progress towards a deeper and more meaningful connection.

To her credit, Hansen-Løve never falls into the easy traps of her setup. In the hands of a less capable filmmaker, India and the people of the country would be little more than ethnic caricatures who exist only to help the Western visitor on his journey of self-discovery. (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, anyone?) Similarly, the age gap between Gabriel and Maya could quickly devolved into the kind of predatory fantasy where an older male regains vitality through his association with a younger woman. (Um, too many Woody Allen movies to count.) Hansen-Løve portrays both Maya, other Indian characters and the country at large with nuance and dimensionality. But she comes a little close to the line separating affectionate portrayal from exploitative navel-gazing.

Hansen-Løve is undoubtedly aided by the soulful performances she draws from her two leading actors. Banerjee, in her first on-screen appearance, both dazzles and delights with an effortless charm. But it's Kolinka, making his third and most substantial collaboration with the director, who leaves the lasting impression. Be it in the way Gabriel's eyes glaze over in casual conversation, his slight slouch or his deliberate sluggish movements, Kolinka successfully externalizes the tumultuous inner life of his tortured character without resorting to histrionics. The sensitivity of his portrayal helps sell some of the more dubious third act plot turns in Maya, which feel out of step with the overall tone and mood of the film. Hansen-Løve still masterfully commands the intimate moments but strains a bit when accelerating beyond her regular speed.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10