Review: 'Memory' slowly builds its way into your mind and heart with performances worth treasuring

The Michel Franco-directed film is out in theaters now.

Stories of trauma are being hauntingly told in "Memory," now in theaters, where it spins slivers of hard-won hope around a world of pain.

Starring Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard in performances worth treasuring, "Memory" slowly builds its way into your mind and heart.

Remember the Beatles lyric about "all the lonely people / where do they all come from?" Here's one hypnotic answer from Mexican writer and director Michel Franco, whose films such as "After Lucia," "Chronic" and "Sundown" are more likely to gut punch than console.

Chastain plays Sylvia, a trained social worker currently employed at an adult day care center. She's also a recovering alcoholic who's been sober for 13 years, about the same age as her daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), whom she overprotects. See the double locks on the door to their Brooklyn apartment. The wary Sylvia, having been sexually abused as a girl, is all about control.

Then, Sylvia is dragged to her sister's high school reunion and notices a man staring hard at her, following her home and camping outside her apartment. He is Saul, played by Sarsgaard in an acting master class that won the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Sylvia quickly intuits that Saul has mental issues, confirmed when she contacts his brother Isaac (Josh Charles).

It turns out that Saul is suffering from early-onset dementia, causing him to get lost and go in and out of coherence. That's when Isaac, who serves as Saul's guardian, offers Sylvia a job as his part-time caretaker. She accepts, but with a secret agenda that eventually reveals itself.

And then, wham! On a walk in the park, Sylvia accuses Saul of being one of the boys who molested her as a child. It's only her sister Olivia (the great Merritt Wever) who tells her that the timing of their school years doesn't coincide, indicating how we can distort our own memories.

It's into that thicket of warped recollections that Franco plunges viewers, persuading us to look deeply into every glance and gesture, searching for clues into who and what to believe. Franco's script can be somber and frustratingly elusive, but we hang on.

Everything detonates when Sylvia confronts her estranged mother Samantha (Jessica Harper, mesmerizing in a monster role) for turning a blind eye to the sexual abuses committed by her father, prompting Olivia to finally reveal that she witnessed the crimes as well. The revelation is shattering, but ultimately sets Sylvia on a road to healing.

How can a romance, which angers Saul's brother and confuses Sylvia's daughter, develop from such emotional chaos? Just watch as Franco orchestrates the bond with sensitivity and skill. It starts quietly with Sylvia and Saul falling asleep on a sofa while watching a movie, which Saul -- self-amused by his own memory affliction -- knows he will forget even as he watches it.

Later, when Saul and Sylvia sleep together in her bed, he gets up to go the bathroom and then forgets which bedroom door is Sylvia's, dreading that he may open Anna's door instead. So he stays in the hallway, not knowing where to call home. Sarsgaard calibrates his portrayal with heart-crushing tenderness.

Is there a happy ending for these two damaged lovers? At best, Franco can offer only a tentative optimism. In this impossible love story between a woman who can't forget and man who can't remember, everlasting is sorrowfully out of reach.

Yet Chastain and Sarsgaard find tender mercies in the simple act of trying. You'll be moved to tears.