PARK CITY, Utah—While watching The Outrun, a harsh but gorgeous portrait of a young woman grappling with alcoholism starring Saoirse Ronan, I thought a lot about a piece of wisdom shared by many therapists and wellness influencers on Instagram: When a person becomes accustomed to living in traumatic chaos, their mind starts to perceive peace as boring. When mess has been the norm for too long, it can start to feel safer and more comfortable than the healthy stasis we all need to thrive.
Ronan embodies that truth as The Outrun’s spiky, deeply vulnerable protagonist, Rona, whose troubled childhood reverberates through her adult present each time she reaches for a bottle. When she’s sober, she’s brilliant and sarcastic and utterly charming; catch her when she’s drunk, however, and you’ll discover her cruel side, the violent mask she uses to push away anyone who might try to ground her in reality. At the start of the film, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, the character returned home to Scotland after spending 90 days in rehab—a decision she made only after a night out in London went terribly wrong.
Adapted from Amy Liptrot’s bestselling memoir, The Outrun takes us from London to Orkney—a set of islands off Scotland—and then to Papa Westray, an island even more remote than Orkney. Rona’s search for healing takes her to remote extremes, to places where the crashing waves mimic the turbulent ebb and flow of her inner life. Director Nora Fingscheidt, who also wrote the screenplay, renders her protagonist with brutal honesty, offering us glimpses at Rona’s wit and effervescent charm only to remind us how her addiction corrodes her every positive attribute, warping them into deceit and manipulation.
Ronan’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, as she illuminates each shard of Rona’s fractured personality. She’s lovable as hell by day, with a small, childlike smile, but by night, she’s a terrifying and convincing drunk. One minute she’s dancing in the club, luxuriating in the beat, and the next she’s smashing glasses on the floor and hurling herself off bar counters, cursing out her loving but exhausted boyfriend with epithets she’ll forget by morning. Allergic to moderation, Rona runs from one extreme to another—from grandiosity to self-hatred, from city center to countryside, from body glitter to baggy sweaters.
Fingscheidt finds poetry in these dichotomies, tying Rona’s recovery to her new job as she works to help repopulate a species of endangered birds called corncrakes. As Rona tells us, these birds migrate all the way from Scotland to the Congo, and only 30 percent of them make it back. It’s a fitting parallel to the steep climb she faces recovering from her alcoholism; as a rehab counselor tells her, only 10 percent of her group is expected to make it through the entire program.
The supporting cast that populates The Outrun is similarly remarkable. The Hours and Game of Thrones actor Stephen Dillane delivers a tragic performance as Rona’s father, a beloved and gentle man whose bipolar disorder pitches him from sleepless manic episodes into long bouts of catatonic depression. Meanwhile, Saskia Reeves plays Rona’s mother with both sorrow and steadiness, caring for both Rona and her father from afar while finding inner strength in God. And while I May Destroy You alum Paapa Essiedu might be criminally underused here, his turn as Rona’s heartbroken boyfriend lends her rock-bottom moment the gravitas it demands.
Naturally, however, it’s Ronan who runs away with the film, playing each phase of Rona’s non-linear story with equal empathy. The buzz is already starting for Ronan to win an Oscar, and it’s not hard to see why, as The Outrun builds on all the best parts of the outspoken, “take-me-or-leave-me” characters she’s built in films like Little Women and Lady Bird. The film’s grand finale might derive much of its power from its booming sound design and fantastic visuals, but the real magic comes from seeing firsthand the lesson Rona has learned. She is not, as she previously thought, incapable of being happy while sober. In fact, she can find all of the wonder she felt while drinking and then some by simply connecting to herself and to nature—and that high comes without a shred of guilt afterward.