What to Watch Verdict
'Supernova' may not be flashy, but it burns brightly all the same.
🌌Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci give nuanced, lived-in performances. You'll fall in love with these characters.
🌌The film's attention to the emotional weight of dementia upon the diagnosed and their family is heartbreaking.
🌌The climax will probably ruffle a few feathers.
🌌The film's betting everything it has on the performances over visual ingenuity.
Supernova is currently only available to watch in theaters (as of January 29, 2021). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.
Supernova is the sort of production that feels like it could just as easily have been written for the stage as for the screen. It’s a contained family drama with two central characters, a smattering of minor ones who mainly only appear in the second act to give those two main characters some perspectives to contrast with their own, and a series of locations that could easily be recreated on a small scale with relatively few props. It’s a film that isn’t so much concerned with its production design or cinematography — no offense intended to the competent teams responsible — but is primarily about two actors realizing some fleshed-out characters in an emotionally fraught conflict captured by writer-director Harry McQueen, himself no stranger to stage acting. This allows the central drama of the piece to shine through without distraction. However, that also means there isn’t much more to recommend it beyond those strong foundational pillars, even if those pillars are the main reason you would ever want to see the film.
Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a couple of twenty years, pack up their RV and go on a road trip, endeavoring to visit Sam’s sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood) along the way to a piano recital Sam is performing after a period of dormancy to his music career. The reason for his absence is that Tusker, himself a novelist, is suffering from early-onset dementia, and the attendant forgetfulness and confusion are taking more and more of Sam’s time and attention. As the couple travels across England, it becomes more apparent how much of a strain Tusker’s illness is placing upon their relationship, and it’s increasingly obvious that they are about to arrive at a difficult impasse for how they wish to proceed with their lives.
Supernova is primarily a film about grief, not for those who have already departed, but for those who still remain but are slowly being lost by pieces and increments. Sam is the embodiment of denial, in perpetual fear of the future his partner faces but insisting on putting on a strong front and making sure that Tusker is taken care of and continues to take care of himself. Firth grounds this performance in a kind of unintentional martyrdom, where Sam prizes holding on to Tusker above all else, regardless of the cost it puts on them and their relationship.
Tucci’s Tusker, meanwhile, sits all the way on the other side of acceptance, so much so that he purposely leaves his medication at home and is determined to spend as much of their trip distracting Sam with dark humor and not focusing on his lapses in mental capacity. Both performances are based on people madly in love with one another keeping their true feelings hidden or suppressed, and from the loving banter to the acknowledgment of hard, unavoidable truths, these are characters whom you easily believe have spent their lives together, whom you quickly come to love, and whom you are heartbroken to see fall apart under the strain of circumstance so wildly beyond their control.
The inevitable clash between Sam’s stoicism and Tusker’s jaded quips is as predictable as it is tragic, and though the third act will certainly raise controversy for how McQueen chooses to resolve the conflict between his ensnared lovers, it remains an emotionally compelling and unspeakably sad examination of the boundaries between selfhood, coupling, and that which makes life worth living. Supernova, despite its title, isn’t a flashy film. It’s about lives that burn brightly, about those caught in their orbit, and what eventually happens when their fuel starts running out. Fortunately, that’s more than enough to carry a story when you have such talented actors to tell it to you.
Supernova releases in theaters on January 29, 2021 and is available on VOD on Feburary 16, 2021.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.