Mary Celeste

By Harry Baker | Drama
A happy family in suburbia has disappeared. And neighbors puzzle over what happened.

The Briggs are an ordinary and seemingly happy family living in English suburbia, in a pleasant home in a tight-knit community. But they have disappeared, which the neighborhood only discovered when the police enter the house and turn it into an investigation site.

The police find no signs of violence or mayhem, though oddly, they find the family’s cell phones put away in a drawer. As they continue their search, the neighbors puzzle over what happened and why. One girl — a friend of daughter Mary Briggs — seems especially disturbed by the disappearance, as the mystery ripples out into the community as a whole.

Written and directed by Harry Baker, this disquieting short drama provokes thought not through shock or surprise, but with the build-up of dread, muted grief and haunting emptiness. It takes the logical question of what happened to the Briggs and transmutes it into a more existential one, disrupting the serenity of ordinary life and questioning what these seemingly unruffled surfaces hold underneath.

A stream of pristinely captured images of everyday life — empty streets, cell phone towers in the sky, wilted flowers on a dinner table — dominates the style of the film, building up a powerful atmosphere. They almost function like an observational series of photographs on modern suburbia, though they begin to take on an uneasy, uncanny portent as characters move in and out of the space and the narrative slowly builds.

The storytelling seems almost incidental, but it is actually quite precisely structured and controlled in pace, with narrative information embedded in the throwaway chit-chat of the neighborhood and community denizens. A pair of bar workers in the neighborhood recounts how the father would come in alone, and how daughter Mary tried to get in sometimes but was carded. The detectives wonder if anyone in the family was depressed, as the search for bodies in the yard yields nothing. A friend of Mary’s is questioned at school: she is withdrawn and seems to know nothing, though her private behavior perhaps hints otherwise. She seems to grieve in private, though the world around her continues.

“Mary Celeste” refers to the daughter of the missing family, but it also could refer to the mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American merchant ship that was discovered deserted off the Azores in 1872. The cargo was discovered intact, as were the passengers’ personal belongings. The Mary Celeste’s disappearance ignited public imagination and spawned books and films, most of which attempt to probe the riddle of the seemingly abandoned ship.

This thoughtful, evocative film itself could be a modern riff on this long-running story, as the Briggs’ disappearance prompts their local community to contemplate just why the family would abandon such contented lives. There are no answers to both the logistical and existential questions in “Mary Celeste.” Some people write off the mystery and move on with their lives. But others feel the loss keenly, feeling isolated from the world around them and left to question what’s underneath the uneventful hum of everyday life.

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