“I thought this kind of thing didn’t happen anymore.”
We Burn Like This has a lot going on, maybe more than most films could effectively pack into an 80-minute runtime, but writer-director Alana Waksman does a hell of a job showing how it’s done. Her story follows Rae (Madeleine Coghlan), a young Jewish woman leading a difficult life in Billings, Montana, amidst the resurgence of anti-Semitism in rural America. Her days are spent finding ways to take her mind off a traumatic upbringing and disorienting present. This includes drugs, partying and alcohol. Quick relationships shutter and old relationships crash and burn because she can’t seem to trust anyone but her roommate, Chrissy (Devery Jacobs). But Chrissy has her own thing going on and Rae only sees the world passing beyond her reach.
Waksman tells Rae’s story with a mixture of grounded imagery and dreamlike interludes. There are flashbacks — genetic memories — to Rae’s ancestors when they first faced hatred upon immigrating to Montana. Rae is dealing with a lot of unaddressed trauma and hides a physical scar that only slowly reveals itself, and its origin, as the story progresses. To her, it’s a reminder of how her journey to rock bottom began. The pain keeps her going until it can’t anymore, and she’s forced to confront her past and find a new path forward. In mixing a pretty gritty depiction of Missoula with Rae’s emotional, dreamlike experiences in life, Waksman develops an effective shorthand to understand the lead character and what she must do to survive.
Of course, all the creative aesthetic choices would be moot if it weren’t for a compelling lead performance, and Coghlan simply kills it. Her performance conveys the complexities of a shattered person who desperately wants to be whole again but can’t quite figure out how. The decisions she makes throughout the story, both good and bad, are maddening and totally understandable given how well-developed Rae is as a character. Films about addiction and recovery can sometimes feel melodramatic or overwrought due to an actor’s choices. Not so here.
Upon experiencing an anti-Semitic incident, Rae utters the quote that opens this review. She can’t believe it’s happening anymore. Hardly anyone can. But in hindsight, it’s unsurprising. Hate never leaves the ether. It festers, ready to personify itself, often in the same ways it always has. Hate isn’t creative. Like hate, though, pain never leaves us, either. It forms and molds us. We Burn Like This is about cycles of hate and of pain and of trying to break free from them. It’s a short piece, very well told and featuring a stunning lead performance.
We Burn Like This is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.
In-person screenings will be held at 5 p.m. EDT, Monday, Oct. 11, at Living Room Theaters and 5 p.m. EDT Saturday, Oct. 15 at the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie.