Coming-of-age stories are, generally speaking, about children on the cusp of adulthood. But there are exceptions to that rule. Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle, now in limited release, focuses on a woman in her 40s and it is, without a doubt, a coming-of-age story. The film’s protagonist is the absurdly dutiful and childlike Agnes, a church-going, tech-averse, cookie-baking Connecticut housewife (played by Kelly MacDonald). Although the story is set in today’s world, Agnes is like a fish out of temporal water. She seems to live in the first half of the 20th century— a meek, dun-colored hybrid of a 1950s homemaker and 1910s kitchen maid.
At first, her anachronistic artificiality can be a little off-putting, especially when compared to the naturalistic portraits of her well-meaning but oblivious husband (a sweet David Denman) and her two teenage sons (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams). That being said, Agnes’ stylized character works in the context of this movie. Her exaggerated servility and naivete make her eventual transformation into a brave, feisty woman all the more satisfying. And what brings about this great change? A terrible fight? An affair? A near-death experience? Well, weirdly enough, the catalyst for Agnes’ personal journey is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
It turns out Agnes enjoys puzzling and has a knack for it. Her interest leads her to New York City and an eccentric puzzle champion/inventor Robert (Irrfan Khan). He’s looking for a puzzle partner. The two quickly strike up a bond, sparking each other’s curiosity and creativity. The bond soon develops into something more. But Puzzle is not just another love story. It is a much more nuanced and complicated tale.
Much of the film’s subtlety comes from the two lead actors’ beautiful performances. MacDonald is quietly marvelous as Agnes, a woman slowly coming alive before our eyes. She navigates every stage of Agnes’ evolution with ease, from an incurious, alienated housewife to an outspoken, vibrant woman. It is a performance so good that it seems to be invisible. As Agnes’ puzzle partner, Khan is every bit MacDonald’s equal, though he has a very different sort of part to play. With every languid gesture and witty turn of phrase, Khan pulls Agnes and the audience closer to him. The movie comes alive whenever the puzzle partners are together.
After all this talk of “deeper bonds,’’ you might think Puzzle is about the transformative power of passion and love. That assumption is not entirely off base, but it misses the film’s main message. Puzzle is about finding out who you really are, meeting people who remind you of who you can be, and discovering your own path in the world. It is a small story — so small that forgetting to buy groceries becomes a thrilling act of rebellion — but a relatable one. To its credit, Puzzle does not overwhelm its story with unrealistic feel-good flourishes and dramatic puzzle competitions. The film is emotionally true to life in all its complexity and it doesn’t spoon-feed its audience. During our era of big-budget spectacles and artificially heightened Oscar-bait biopics, Puzzle is a rare and reassuring specimen: a simple tale, told with grace.
Puzzle is now showing at Upstate Films in Woodstock and will be shown at Upstate Films Rhinebeck and The Moviehouse in Millerton beginning Friday, Aug. 24.