This Is Not a War Story is lying right from the title card, and that’s okay. It is most definitely a war story, even if all of its stories of war take place off screen and in the past through occasional remanences.
But if This Is Not a War Story is low on pyrotechnics, it’s big on emotional implosion with an eye firmly on the cost of war. Not just the death or destruction or even the wounded among the soldiers and civilians on both sides, but the survivors who seem to come back hale and hearty.
A quiet, reserved character study, the film wants to make sure no one forgets the invisible wounds that have been left to fester for so long.
The most counterintuitively glaring of those wounds are the ones recently-discharged Isabelle Casale (director/star Talia Lugacy) is clearly carrying around. At odds with her family and everyone around her, war has exacerbated Isabelle’s anti-social attributes to the point she can barely look at anyone much less express what she’s feeling.
Her deep well of pain and solitude meets its match in the empathy of Will (Sam Adegoke) who runs a rehab group specifically for veterans with PTSD issues. Even as he draws Isabelle out of her shell, Will’s own issues begin to creep up on him again until no one is sure who is saving who anymore.
At its best, This Is Not a War Story is a quietly-enthralling character study in pain that dives into the heart of the unspeakable and comes out the other side. That is largely due to the work Lugacy is doing on both sides of the lens. As actor and director she is firmly in the ‘less is more’ camp, producing an Isabelle who is clearly defined in her trauma even as she will only talk about it in circles.
By the end she is so well defined a half slouch or a punch to the arm speak volumes even if she can’t. Lugacy the director is similarly reserved, matching her characters’ feelings of isolation with long silent stretches of them in their chosen environments by turns fidgeting and peaceful.
She has a strong on-screen partner in Adegoke, who sets himself the unenviable task of drawing Isabelle out of her shell and reminding her she has permission to be alive. It works because Will has his own pain to deal with which is slowly pulled from him as Isabelle’s.
It would have been easy to make him an all-knowing figure of wisdom who could give Isabelle just the answers she needs when she needs them, but as he himself reminds her he doesn’t know everything. He may not know anything, his own frustrations sending him off to a mountain retreat where nothing can get to him including his newest protégé.
But his presence as character and actor creates the space for catharsis. Adegoke and Lugacy have real onscreen chemistry, all the more prevalent for how few words they share until Isabelle finally tracks him down in the proactive moment she’s had in years.
All of this works because This Is Not a War Story is very good at pretending it’s not a war story when it really is, wrapping itself in the pain of its leads which could as easily be about a lost family member or sudden shock as about war and death.
Every so often it does remind us what it is, usually through brief mouthpiece who can speak diatribes about the American war machine and what it has done in different countries, the confusion of war and occupation and the realization that one may not be the hero they had been told they were. That’s all well and good, but when someone says it out loud, just like that, among otherwise very subtle shades of character and dialogue, the dichotomy is a bit much.
But it doesn’t happen that often. And it can’t cover up a sterling bit of both character work and deep thematic relevance from artist on the rise. This Is Not a War Story is definitely a war story, and it’s more than okay.