Skillfully blending facts, fancy, and a vision of the earliest days of moviemaking, the artful Mann (Wisecracker, 1998, etc.) resurrects the first movie star as a hot-ticket 107-year-old discovered in a Catholic nursing home in Buffalo by twin brothers who promptly start fighting over her to further their own agendas.
In reality, Florence Lawrence was the Biograph Girl, cinema’s brightest star, by 1910, and a suicide by 1938. Here, she’s a sharp-witted, caftan-clothed, chain-smoking centenarian named Flo, stumbled upon by freelance journalist Richard Sheehan when the man he was supposed to interview in the home turns out to have just died. Captivated by her, Richard wants her story, but the first tantalizing clues that she’s the Biograph Girl run up against the seemingly insurmountable fact of her having committed suicide. While Richard’s sleuthing eventually gets the LAPD involved, with the result that the body in Florence Lawrence’s Hollywood grave is exhumed, his idealistic documentary filmmaker brother Ben also takes an interest in Flo, spurred on by the sympathetic nun in charge of the home, who sees in Ben’s eyes the eyes of her former lover. Ben’s high-powered agent catches wind of Flo’s mysterious and glamorous past, along with the scandal surrounding her at present, and suddenly Ben is having a script greenlighted by Hollywood’s biggest mogul—on the condition that he can tease the truth from the reluctant Flo and turn it into docudrama. Will Ben sell out? Will Richard save Flo from his brother? Will forcing Flo to confront the shadows in her past be the end of her?
For all the camp and melodrama, a finely detailed and satisfyingly complicated mystery, aided in its allure by several characters simultaneously coming to terms with how they came to be who they are.