Mathematically speaking, it appears impossible that with all the countless stars in seemingly endless galaxies that there isn’t at least ONE other celestial body out there capable of supporting advanced lifeforms like our own. With multiple screens and other distractions vying for our increasingly fractured attention, we often forget to look up and ask if we truly are alone in the universe. TIFF darling Clara attempts to answer the question with the heart as well as the mind.
Astronomy professor and professional cynic Isaac Bruno (Patrick J. Adams) has eagerly awaited the launch of NASA’s new TESS satellite which will begin an advanced mapping of the stars for any sign of intelligent life. With open source data from the project being offered to anyone willing to comb through it, Isaac jumps at the chance to find the ever-elusive extraterrestrial intelligence. Faced with an ill-timed suspension from his university due to classroom conduct, Isaac is forced to work from home and seek un unpaid assistant. The only applicant arrives in the form of Clara (Troian Bellisario), a wayward artist who mostly wants the job for it’s free room and board.
Her open-minded approach to the work handily balances out Isaac’s tunnel-vision approach however and they soon discover a potential earth-like planet among the mountain of data, only to find out another team has beat them to their discovery by mere weeks. Forced to return to the drawing board, Clara pushes Isaac to look beyond the raw data and trust something deeper within himself. Not only to find new life but also to finally face what has been plaguing his own.
As much time as it spends playing among the stars, Clara is really more about our earthbound journeys and how matters of faith and fact intersect. The age-old heart vs. head dilemma has played out many times before, but real-life married couple Adams and Bellisario are up to the task. The characters and their struggles are neatly defined giving both actors plenty of room for interpretation.
An appealing “cosmic” tone is struck early on via eye-popping deep-space imagery and a soothing etherial score. The fact that the story utilizes the real-life TESS satellite (already launched) and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope add enough credibility that it might encourage more than a few viewers to keep an eye on the data themselves. Extraterrestrial life need not be fiction forever.
The film’s one real fumble comes at the worst possible place: the ending. It’s very tempting with immense subject matter like this to want to continually mine the possibilities. However the film sacrifices a perfect ending by tacking an unnecessary and frankly eye-rolling epilogue that feels more at home in another movie or at best a sequel.
I’ll let the film’s coyness at its Toronto setting go in the spirit of the season (you have to really squint to see it). The strength of the film’s leads and strong setup help to quell most qualms I have about where the story ends up. After all, we could stand to look up a little more these days.