When a filmmaker is confident and secure in her ability to keep the viewer emotionally entranced on every beat of the internal journey her characters take without bunging in extraneous plot wrappings, it is a rare thing of beauty. Such a director is so intimately keyed into the psyche and circumstances of her protagonist or supporting characters that the film can float purely by dint of the tide of gradually unfurling dynamics. In her debut feature, “Second Chance,” writer-director Subhadra Mahajan reveals an extraordinary felicity for mapping a gamut of emotional moods with compassion and delicacy.

The film opens with its 25-year-old protagonist, Nia (Dheera Johnson, full of a striking, unforced presence), just having discovered her pregnancy and realizing her boyfriend has deserted her, not responding to any of her messages. Having popped a few abortion pills, Nia doesn’t think she can discuss it with her parents and seek any solace from them. When the film cracks open from a black screen, we encounter Nia amidst a magnificent mountainous expanse. Intensely fraught, she has taken shelter in her parents’ summer home situated in a remote corner of Himachal Pradesh.

Far away from the bustle of urbanity and its unreliability, she slowly slips into stable ground, a series of necessary reckonings with herself and how she actually wishes to steer her life, devoid of the overbearing influence of her parents. The beauty of Mahajan’s luminous, light-footed screenplay is in the subtle clues she peppers in throughout that allude to how Nia’s own desires and agency at navigating her life on her own terms from a young age may have been quelled by parents eager to stage-manage the trajectory of her ambitions.

The closest we come to learning details of her private life and connection to family, which doesn’t seem so intimate and loving, is when her ex-boyfriend, whom she hadn’t met in ten years, takes her to his house and meets his wife. As she is asked about her career ventures, she is distinctly ill at ease. The ex-boyfriend tells her he always thought she’d be a dancer. There are no grand, overstated declarations here of how Nia may have been compelled to put aside her passion to invest instead in family endeavors, none of which have ever resonated with her.

Second Chance (2024) ‘Karlovy Vary’ Movie Review
A still from “Second Chance” (2024)

As the summer home’s caretaker, Raju ( Rajesh Kumar), goes away to attend to urgent work, Nia finds herself in the comforting, non-judgemental companionship of his sturdy elderly mother-in-law, Bhemi (Thakri Devi) and his hoot of an eight-year-old son, Sunny (an absolutely endearing Kanav Thakur). Mahajan strips away any excess of event and incident, opting for a deliberate minimalism that ever so gently leads us into the initially coiled-up inner world of Nia. She is obviously hurting, deeply anguished, and terrified. Her decision to take refuge in her parents’ summer home may be the recourse to flight we have when pushed into a tough situation. Early in the film, when the shock and angst are still too fresh, she is distant and keeps to herself.

However, Nia’s aloofness softly unclasps. Together, the trio become kindred souls, each perceptive and kind to what the other is going through without a litany of explanations and justifications. There’s an overwhelming scene when Bhemi confesses to Nia about a choice she made years ago. Both Dheera Johnson and Thakri Devi traverse the scene of forgiveness and generosity with an understated emotional transparency that is positively breath-stopping.

Of course, there is a wide class chasm, but the two women and the kid walk towards a bonding life force that’s revitalizing and infused with sanguine, empathetic energy. Bhemi also has a flirty suitor in the form of a chirpy shepherd (Ganga Ram), who is ever-ready to dole out the most sumptuous compliments on everything she makes, be it food or the wool she spins. The moments they share, even if few and far in between, are among the best in the film, the lively teasing in them leavening the mood for just a brief while.

With the staggering Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas as a backdrop, “Second Chance” naturally lends itself to monumental beauty. However, shot in black & white, DP Swapnil S. Sonawane doesn’t keel into empty, needlessly indulgent, and flattering shots of the towering, snowy vastness in whose lap Nia is. Yet arrestingly exquisite as ever, Sonawane’s camerawork, straddling an interplay of light and shadow, is attuned to evoking through the landscapes an accentuation of Nia’s loneliness and eventually how she eases out of it and into intimacy with what she felt as discomfort.

Second Chance (2024) ‘Karlovy Vary’ Movie Review
Another still from “Second Chance” (2024)

There’s an exhilaratingly shot, standout sequence of Nia on a get-together night of music, drinks and dancing. Working in effortless tandem, Mahajan and Johnson create a penetratingly vivid, emotionally complex portrait of a woman resurfacing from shattering grief with a deepening robustness of spirit and strength that may take its time but nevertheless does arrive. The melancholy washes over you with a still power, as do the bolstering snatches of joy and unexpected connection.

Mahajan’s tone as a storyteller is muted yet so finely calibrated she is acutely aware of how to draw out and establish her characters, who have varying paths, with an equanimity of feeling and personal texture. The warmth and dignity in her gaze are uplifting and empowering, granting a reprieve to all disconsolate souls. Spare and resoundingly effective, Quan Bay’s music is the emotional heartbeat of “Second Chance.” Having been absolutely bowled over by their work on Bhaskar Hazarika’s unforgettable “Aamis” way back in 2019, I’d been wondering what they have been up to.

When Nia dances by herself in the coda, with freedom, acceptance, and resurgence charging every willowy move of hers, Quan Bay’s accompanying music feels like it just boils down and condenses and rinses out all of her emotional storms, extruding bolts of dazzling, life-affirming possibilities all waiting for her. Capping off with such a stunning final sequence, “Second Chance” is a crystalline, quiet miracle, marrying despair and reclamation to astonishing results.

Second Chance premiered in the Proxima competition at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2024.

Second Chance (2024) Movie Link: IMDb

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