A strange contest that is either crucial - or insignificant - we never know

This film is its own game, though since it stars Suzanne Wuest, it makes one miss the Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy that she came to attention in in 2015, which was weirder, more disturbing, and more elegant than the minimal, Canadian Stanleyville,. But Stanleyville stakes out its own narrow territory and holds our attention with what it's got. It begins with Wuest's character, known as Maria Barbizan, after a big bird has ominously smashed into her workplace window, chucking out her whole existing life - her sterile, but stylish-looking high rise office job, lazy homebody husband, and nondescript kid - tossing the contents of her purse, including her cash, in the poubelle, and going to a shopping mall, where she sits in a massager chair ready to be recruited by a scrawny oddball in a wrinkled suit whose moniker is "Homunculus" (veteran British-actor-in-Canada Julian Richings).

This dude tells her She's been chosen for a "platinum-level exclusive contest" from among hundreds of millions to compete with a tiny few, and she bites. Since people say Wuest reminds them of Tilda Swinton - and she does, a bit - you'd think she'd seem more sensitive and intelligent, but she gets the scrubbed and androgynous part. The contest she goes for is to win an appetizing sounding new "habanero-orange" SUV, and transcendence. Part of Homunculus' pitch includes the news that "Research data shows that everything you have done in your life has led to this moment, and the next moment, and the moment that follows into the end," and Maria buys into it. She's ready.

It's a very strange contest Maria's brought into. (The action has been called a mix of "Squid Game" and a TV reality show.) There are indeed only four other participants, in a big room with a green scoreboard that has their names already printed on it, and eight columns, for tests. The tests are make-silly: the first is to see who can blow up the most little balloons in a minute. It doesn't seem to matter what the test is, arranging things in a box, composing an anthem for the whole world, or whether it takes minutes or many hours to complete. It doesn't seem to matter who wins. Yet somehow each test is more urgent and killer-crucial than the one before, leading up to the climax. No one can leave the big room.

When Maria's performing her anthem, words come up on a screen: "“Granted that I know little of my real self, still, I am the best evidence for myself," which comes from the explorer, Henry M. Stanley (most famous for the line, "Dr. Livingston, I presume?") - a searcher for meaning and transcendence, like Maria, and presumably source of the film's title.

This is a good setup, and the film by veteran Canadian actor-writer McCabe-Lukas, whose feature debut this is, can't really live up to it, but he achieves focus and intensity nonetheless. The best moment perhaps is when Maria comes to suspect that in fact, as another contestant, Felice (Cara Ricketts), a scrappy young black woman, tells her, she was not chosen from millions of others but picked quite randomly. For Maria, this seems an unendurable prospect. Imagine if this were not a special event: we'd have to swoosh Maria back to the beginning, and start another movie. But the elliptical, weird, borderline deadly contest depicted here is a kind of metaphor for the search for meaning in the world we all must be engaged in.

Stanleyville, 90 minsl, debuted at Montreal (Fantasia Festival) Aug. 15, 2021. US theatrical release through Oscilloscope Laboratories starting at Metrograph, New York, Apr. 22, 2022. Metacritic 64%.