Educator and parent Zola is overwhelmed by responsibilities, not just at work, but also in taking care of her aging mother Frances, who has dementia. Life is sagging at the seams, and she is exhausted and drained, both emotionally and physically.
But when Abrah, a former crush, pops back up in her life, she sees a fleeting chance of escaping to a different life. But her night out doesn’t feel as liberating as she’d hope, forcing her confront the limitations of her life.
Writer-director Sudarshan Suresh, along with co-writer Shakti Bhagchandani, has created a nuanced, emotionally compelling slice-of-life family drama about the toll of love, loyalty, and just what it means to be free.
The story’s foundations are laid down with both economy and depth in the writing, laying down the character’s life, routines and pressures in a series of scenes that capture both the stress and mundanity of being a caretaker. Though Zola’s mother is portrayed with great sympathy, Zola remains the focus of the storytelling, and the film takes pains to capture her range of feelings, desires and disappointments, from her fraying patience with her mother to her sudden joy at encountering her old crush.
Visually, the film’s visual palette is subdued and even dingy, particularly in Zola’s home, where all color seems washed out from the world and shadows grow increasingly heavy as the film progresses. The color and sound become livelier when Zola glimpses a temporary respite, but then retreats into a dark, murky darkness when she returns home.
The script is brought to life by an understated yet empathetic performance by lead actress Adiagha Faizah as Zola. She captures both the weariness of shouldering great, persistent responsibility with the competing desires of a woman who wants an independent, pleasurable life. There’s a sense of excitement and possibility when Zola decides to take up Abran’s invitation to go out, but she’s unable to enjoy herself fully when she’s out. She can’t quite forget or escape her responsibilities, and she can’t quite enjoy the moments when she is free. When her responsibilities at home finally can’t be ignored, she simply has no choice in her eyes — but that lack of agency comes at a cost.
“Absent” tells its story with great emotional intelligence, fleshing out the sometimes simplistic portrayal of a caretaker to include the very real exhaustion, burnout and resentment that some feel when saddled with an enormous responsibility and little room to maintain their own sense of autonomy and self. With illnesses like Alzheimer’s only expected to increase in the future, this drama captures just what the human toll of that statistical trend will be — not just for the unfortunate people with the disease, but for those caught in the cross-hairs as well.