Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley’s debut feature, Cardinals opens on the scene of a fatal accident. This is where we meet Valerie Walker (Sheila McCarthy), pouring herself another drink as she waits for the police to arrive.

We immediately pick up the story years later when Valerie is released from prison and being greeted by her two adult daughters and now-estranged husband. It turns out that she had hit someone with her car that night and had been charged with drunk driving causing death. Things are tense at home and the audience can’t help suspecting that there’s more to this story than we’ve been led to believe. When Mark (Noah Reid), the son of the man that Valerie hit and killed with her car, shows up at their door, we slowly begin to realize that he somehow suspects that Valerie killed his father on purpose.

McCarthy and Reid do great work in Cardinals. Both manage to be relateable and easy to empathize with even though their motives are often unclear. Mark’s politeness is obviously insincere and his uninvited presence in the Walkers’ lives become increasingly intrusive. Valerie is the master of the brave face, but her secrets are clearly weighing on her and Mark is obviously making her nervous. Together, they’re the perfect recipe for a slow-burn thriller that doubles as a study of the role of secrets and trauma in the lives of two families. And spare a thought for poor Jonah (very well played by Peter Spence), Valerie’s parole officer who has to make sense of all this.

Imagine my disappointment when this all comes to a boil in an uncharacteristically melodramatic climax that just doesn’t fit with the restraint that the film showed in the first hour. It’s still an impressive debut for its believable performances, excellent pacing, and unpredictable plot.

This review was originally posted as part of our TIFF 2017 coverage. Cardinals opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.