By Joey Nolfi
June 15, 2017 at 04:23 PM EDT
Duncan Deyoung/Sony Pictures Classics

A modest biographical drama in quaint 1930s period dressings, Maudie stars Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis, Canada’s premier folk artist whose simplistic portraits of unassuming subjects like cats, dogs, and flowers garnered the arthritic painter both high praise and criminally low-ball offers from public patrons before her untimely death in 1970. Whether you consider her work crude or delightfully regressive thanks to its juvenile, escapist flair, Lewis’ success story is an inherently fascinating chronicle of unexpected talent sparking accidental genius.

In the restrained hands of director Aisling Wash (The Daisy Chain), Maudie meanders through the midway point in the downtrodden icon’s life, picking up as she discovers her independence after living with a no-nonsense aunt for most of her adulthood. Later, when her brother sells the family home (much to Maud’s dismay), she answers an employment ad posted by Everett (Ethan Hawke), a local fish peddler, agreeing to clean his home in exchange for a living wage and a roof over her head, under which she hones her craft and finds a troubled companion who quells the pains of her past.

Despite fiercely committed performances, Maudie‘s dedication to authenticity makes the film feel like a rigid antique, and it consequently plays like a pop-up version of a thoroughly written Wikipedia entry, albeit a charming one. Most of that charm resides in the effortless grace with which Hawkins – giving one of the best performances of the year – takes to the character, playing every physical tic and emotional key with quiet intensity. Hawkins pumps a childlike sense of innocence and peculiarity into the part, as Maud’s unorthodox coupling with Everett evolves from its tumultuous tyrant-versus-slave dynamic into a beautiful, layered romance. Through her eyes, we see the same zest for life blossom around Maud, who once viewed her existence as a meaningless, gray slate that later teems with the varied hues of a swooning heart set ablaze.

Much like Maud’s paintings, Maudie succeeds in stimulating our curiosity about the artist herself, and the mysteries of her success in the real world inevitably become more interesting and powerful than the unfussy sincerity of the film. Like one of the many flowers Maud painted in the single-room, seaside shack she and Everett shared, Maudie is breezy and digestible. On an aesthetic level, Maud’s creations aren’t that interesting, but Maudie cherishes the intent of the artist above all, acknowledging that a true work of art is often found in exploring why the brush is moved in the first place. B