Memory can be defined as the brain’s capacity to accumulate and remember information. Or as the recollection of a past point in life. Or even, in the technology obsessed societies of today, a card inside a computer’s motherboard that keeps data in an invisible space. Memory is a tricky thing—there needs to be an acknowledgment that it isn’t a static set of mental images that can be trusted, and it’s also vulnerable to the passage of time; the mind stretches and memories, along with a person’s understanding of who he/she is, fade.
This theme of loss is the main topic of Beth Moran’s short film Missing a Note. The director and writer, inspired by her grandfather’s illness and in collaboration with Dementia Matters, strives to raise awareness on the initial signs of dementia. So, instead of telling the story of a senile old man in the character of John O’Connell (Ian McElhinney), Moran decides to portray those other times when loved ones are still recognized, but can be fleetingly lost as whole worlds crumble within a momentary confusion visible only in the eyes. Those moments of temporary perplexity that family and friends laugh away tenderly either to protect themselves, or the elder one, from a terrible truth.
At least that’s what John’s wife, Angie O’Connell (Elaine Paige), does minus the laughter, as she hides clues from her husband of his dying short-term memory. A misplaced remote control here. Or the complete erasure of the first encounter with a high school girl, Molly (Darcy Jacobs), who, in order to avoid making John aware of his diminishing mental state, has two auditions for a scholarship report he is meant to write as a retired and acclaimed opera singer.
McElhinney incarnates once again a grandfather audiences will love, but instead of offering entertainment with the sharp sassiness of the Irish Granda Joe from Lisa McGee’s hilarious Derry Girls, he appears on screen as an affectionate husband and an even kinder artist who doesn’t revel in his past fame. Rather, he wants to encourage young Molly, as a true mentor would—to evolve and succeed. Besides the warm smiles of a sweet old man, McElhinney’s facial expressions reach a new level of expertise in instances of subtle disorientation.
It is Paige, however, who makes the film even more real. In all of her scenes, she either exudes a tremendous amount of love for her husband, or an unbearable, and most of the time concealed pain for the inevitable day that his eyes, although blinking, will look back at her with emotional emptiness. It’s not only the chemistry between McElhinney and Paige that render this story genuine, however; it’s also the unexpected reveal of John’s illness itself. While overrated films that deal with this topic, such as Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook go for grandiose gestures and reactions, Moran’s take gives a quiet slice of everyday life; John’s sickness creeps up on the audience just as it can in reality.
The title alone hints at the plot twist, but it’s so faint that it’s initially overlooked. On the one hand, it works as a metaphor for John’s minor everyday mistakes. On the other, it can point back to how easy it is to ignore the early symptoms of dementia: they can go unnoticed like the missing of a note. Many wish for a clean slate in life; Moran pays homage to those that, even if they do so involuntarily, they gradually walk towards a date of tabula rasa.