Depression is a difficult thing to describe; almost as much as living with it. Every verbal attempt on my part cannot convey the sadness, the self-defeat, and the devastating loss of interest in one breath. Thankfully, there are storytellers out there who can tap into this condition’s ins and outs, then interpret them in a creative way. Someone also frank enough to say, “This is depression, and it feels utterly terrible.” This is where Riley Stearns‘ Dual comes in.
A dramedy in the same vein as the director’s previous feature The Art of Self-Defense, Dual trails a despondent individual caught up in a bizarre situation. Karen Gillan ably plays Sarah, the dejected protagonist suddenly diagnosed with a terminal disease. In this universe, she has the option of cloning herself with no red tape and very little wait time. This way her loved ones can endure their loss more easily. Lo and behold, Sarah’s malady isn’t so fatal after all. In fact, she’s recovers completely. This means her clone, who was already in the midst of assuming Sarah’s life once she passed, has to be decommissioned. That is until the new Sarah files a court-approved challenge; the two Sarahs must now fight to the death.
Dual is never too heavy on the science-fiction. It smartly glosses over the details of the story and instead focuses on Sarah (the original one) as she adjusts to life again after learning she’s about to die. The potential for melodrama is high but evaded on the whole; Stearns opts for a dry wit that better embodies Sarah’s funk. The filmmaker is a maven when it comes to the little things about depression. Family, food, relationships, sex — Stearns knows how to show rather than tell. Her mother (Maija Paunio) is mercilessly critical and confrontational, while her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) is condescending and indelicate. As much as the world in general likes to say it’s open to discussions on mental health, Dual remembers that is not always true in our personal lives. Those closest to us can be the most ignorant and intolerant when we are at our low points.
Where original Sarah’s life changes (again) is when she gets the “good” news about her so-called incurable stomach illness. At first, Sarah seems almost pleased by this development, but now she has to deal with her clone. Someone who is evidently more adept at living her life than she ever was. Depressed folks have an unending battle with themselves about whether or not they belong while in this state. And for Sarah, she’s hit with the answer that none of us want to hear, much less see unfold before our very eyes.
On the other side of things, Sarah is empowered to fight for her life in a way she never did before this clone business. She is trained by Trent (Aaron Paul) in the months before the day of the duel. Stearns once again boosts his protagonist’s confidence and spirit through physical training. Gillan and Paul’s teacher-student relationship, however, never reaches the intensity of Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola’s in The Art of Self-Defense because they are on the same team and working toward the same goal. Their bond at times comes across as underdeveloped because of this lack of friction, but there is no denying the nourishing element either.
The unpredictability of life is highlighted in Dual. What was to be expected to happen never quite does, and no amount of training will prepare us for the less pleasant outcomes. To live, we think there has to be a purpose. So many people thrive on that alone, but what if that goal dries up? What happens next? This is what Stearns drives at in the film’s inexact, cheerless ending. While it might have been easier to go ahead with what was promised ahead of time, how things turn out makes a lot more sense when you’re constantly on the other side of happiness.
Dual premiered at the Sundance 2022 Film Festival.