Tag Archives: grief

The Starling

Lilly and Jack Maynard are going through hell. Their baby girl died about a year ago, and Jack (Chris O’Dowd) has suffered a break down, attempted suicide, and has been hanging out in a psychiatric hospital ever since, unable to shake his depression. His wife Lilly (Melissa McCarthy) gardens. She works too, and commutes to visit her husband, and takes care of the house, and generally does her best to get on with a life that imploded around her.

The Starling is about finding that little spark, that one reason to keep going when everything feels impossible, even if it means leaving everything else, or someone else, behind.

Melissa McCarthy does wonderful work as a childless mother, an almost widow, a woman who is dangerously untethered but deprived of the usual expressions of grief. With her husband casting himself as primary mourner, Lilly’s left to grasp at the leftovers, never one to ask for much. Yet she, too, is in pain. And that pain always manifests itself one way or another. Nothing stays buried forever. But with the help of an aggressive bird and a sagacious veterinarian (Kevin Kline), Lilly is reminded that all we need is a little hope. Hope is everywhere, it can be so small, tiny even, found sometimes in the strangest and most unexpected of places, but the trick is: you have to be open to it.

Director Theodore Melfi takes on the greatest loss that we know as humans: that of a child. We can intuitively understand that such a loss opens up a sink hole of sadness, but unless we’ve been sucked down ourselves, it’s impossible to truly understand its depths. What’s more, we don’t have any practical advice for pulling someone out. It must be terrifying to be down there, and even scarier when a couple falls down separate holes. But despite this heaviest of topics, The Starling has an uplifting momentum, thanks in part to a wonderful cast, and of course the indominable spirit of woman.

The Starling is an official TIFF 2021 selection.

It is scheduled to be released in a limited theatre run on September 17, 2021, prior to streaming on Netflix on September 24, 2021.

Mothering Sunday

Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) grew up in an orphanage and was turned out at the age of 14 and pressed into a life of service. She works as a maid in post-WW1 England for the Nivens (Olivia Colman & Colin Firth), who lost both sons in the war. Their dearest friends the Sheringhams also lost two sons in the war but have one remaining – Paul (Josh O’Connor). All 5 boys grew up together and were quite close. The Nivens have come to think of Paul as a little bit theirs.

Jane, too, has come to think of Paul as a little bit hers because they’re having secret sex at every opportunity, which are admittedly few. In addition to the upstairs-downstairs wrinkle, there’s also the small problem of Paul’s being engaged to marry (someone else). He’s actually engaged to a woman who was meant to become the Nivens’ daughter-in-law, but now goes to Paul, by default. As you can imagine, it’s not the most romantic of engagements, but he considers it his duty as sole survivor to do what the others cannot.

The movie looks gorgeous, of course. This is what British cinema does best. But it’s also completely morose, unrelentingly gloomy, and unforgivably languid. Grief and loss shimmer insistently in the corners, but the British propensity for a stiff upper lip prevails, and all these grief-stricken parents do their best to muddle on in their big empty homes that feel more like memorials.

Traditionally, before mother’s day, mothering Sunday was a day off you gave the servants to go visit their mums. The title used here makes us painfully aware of so many sad circumstances. What is a mother when all her children are dead? And what is a daughter when her unknown mother gave her up? In her fog of despair, Mrs. Niven tells Jane how lucky she is to have been “born bereaved;” with no parents or family to lose, Jane will never know the pain of their loss. Being motherless is a gift, so says a woman drowning in grief and cynicism, Jane is free because she has no-one to care about. It’s both true and not true (not to mention a pretty awful thing to say, though we’ll forgive her because she’s completely heart broken but trying plenty hard not to let the mask slip). Jane has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, but that leaves her free for a fuckfest with her lover. And though Paul’s just a fortnight away from marrying (this is likely their last encounter), their time together isn’t tinged with sadness. They linger over each other with fondness, naked and unafraid. But Jane isn’t going to find a happily ever after here (nor, for that matter, is Paul). At most, suggests a future Jane, played brilliantly if briefly by Glenda Jackson, it is fodder for a brilliant writing career.

Unfortunately, the film lingers over literally everything, and though there are some brilliant bits, they are too few and too far between to really gather momentum or build emotion. The whole thing comes off as rather cold, an old woman’s memory of a torrid love affair that’s lost its heat.

Mothering Sunday is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Supernova

You were looking to have a cry today, weren’t you?

Sam and Tusker are driving around England in an RV, and I suppose that’s not technically the sad part, but honey, it is. The sad part is that it’s basically a farewell tour, visiting all their special spots and friends and family along the way. No one’s dying, but Tusker’s thinking about it, while he still can.

Diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago, Tusker (Stanley Tucci) may not have a lot of good time left, and they’re determined to make the most of it. But with Tusker losing little bits at a time, every moment is tinged with sadness for Sam (Colin Firth), who is losing his great love, and with hopelessness for Tusker, who is powerless to stop it.

Supernova is a quiet and intimate movie, perfect for getting close to these characters – though maybe don’t get too attached. Tusker has a secret plan to avoid the worst of what’s coming. Writer-director Harry Macqueen allows them to explore their grief and loss in a multitude of ways. Tucci and Firth are of course the reason to watch and they’re really terrific. Tragedy is always lurking at the seams but this is really a story about time – the time they’ve shared, and the time they have left. It’s bittersweet, deeply moving, but never maudlin. The film is restrained and subtle, allowing Tucci and Firth to shine until it breaks your little heart.

Sophie Jones

Sixteen is already a difficult age, with lots of challenges to navigate, but Sophie Jones has just lost her mother, so the regular rhythms of adolescence are tinged with grief and loss, which somehow makes normal rites of passage seem more trivial, yet each holds the potential power to make her forget, even for a moment, her deep sadness. Sophie (Jessica Barr) is throwing herself rather recklessly from one milestone to another, hoping to pierce through the numbness of grief and feel something, feel anything.

Sophie’s nervous giggle belies the fact that she’s still a young girl, lacking the maturity to handle all that life has dumped in her lap, not that she’s got a choice. Barr herself is still a young woman, a convincing teenager, playing the role with a natural authenticity. She and cousin Jessie Barr co-wrote the script, and Jessie Barr directs, informed by their own experiences with grief.

Sophie’s primary means of coping is boys, of course, who mostly offer comfort mostly of a physical sort. Trying her best to wear a brave face at school and at home, grief sneaks out in unpredictable ways, heightening emotions that are already fully charged. We float through time as if in a fog; the film is mostly muted, visually and emotionally, enveloping us in a very specific, highly intimate universe.

Some may find Sophie Jones to be a slow watch, maybe not the most exciting, but it’s honest in its portrayal of mourning, raw in its loss of innocence, in more ways than one. The Barr cousins prove themselves to be immensely talented, and if you don’t mind a slow-burn character study, this is a very good one.

Berlinale 2021: Language Lessons

Hello from the Berlin International Film Festival, streaming live from my bedroom for the first time ever. I’ve got a full slate of great movies ahead of me this week, or they better be after the very first one set the bar extremely high.

Adam’s husband Will gifts him with Spanish lessons. Two years worth of Spanish lessons! Hope you like them, Adam, because this is quite a commitment. Adam (Mark Duplass) is still getting used to the lavish lifestyle Will’s success affords them, and the time and freedom to pursue such projects at leisure. Cariño (Natalie Morales) is the Spanish teacher, beaming in from Costa Rica. Over the next two years, they’ll come to know each other very well through the miracle of conversation. Adam’s Spanish grammar may leave something to be desired but when you spend dedicated time in simple conversation with another human being, over time a relationship is cultivated almost as if by magic. Bonding over their own personal tragedies, the two are perhaps a little surprised by the friendship that seems to grow organically between them. They’ve never been in the same country let alone the same room, but their bond feels genuine and strong. Is it real, can it be trusted?

Natalie Morales directs the story she and Duplass wrote for themselves. It’s an interesting exploration of human attachment and what it means to connect authentically. We experience their relationship solely through the split screen of their online connection. I worried this conceit may wear thin over the course of a feature-length film, but these two share such compelling chemistry, and go to such lengths to entertain and stimulate each other, I found myself not minding it at all.

Perhaps most amazingly, this spontaneous friendship is allowed to remain platonic throughout the film. Adam and Cariño have shared pain and grief in their backgrounds, and the fact that they can find a way to reach out despite it is a tenuous little miracle it feels a privilege to witness. Trust is of course one of the most universal human hardships, and it feels elemental to watch it be birthed and nurtured on screen. Adam and Cariño are an endearing but flawed pair; their simple humanity is what’s touching. Language Lessons is disarming in the most delightful way.

Wander Darkly

Well this was unexpected.

Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are new parents on their first night out post baby, half giddy, half drunk on the mere thought of that first drink, half on edge because things have been tense, half fighting before they even reach the party. Mathematically that’s too (two) many halves, so let’s just say it’s not the fun and fancy free night out they’d envisioned, and that’s before they get in that brutal car wreck that half kills them both.

I’m only half being cheeky. The thing is, Adrienne wakes up dead, or believes herself to be dead, despite assurances from others that she isn’t, which leaves the couple in a rather, erm, surreal situation. Together they revisit the highlights and lowlights of their troubled relationship, trying to piece together a version of their life where it all makes sense, is all worth while. Whether your soul is actually in limbo or you’re simply experiencing a psychotic break due to trauma, taking such a stark account of one’s life is always a harrowing and naked experience. Interestingly, we get to see the major milestones of their relationship from both sides. There is no impartial witness in a relationship, no official accounting of who is right and who is wrong. But in tallying up their love and their losses, the grief and the guilt, the score actually seems besides the point.

I often have a low tolerance for movies (and stories generally) that go out of their way to be obtuse but this one managed to keep my interest, and harder still, my positive regard. Wander Darkly is effective and enticing, drawing us in to a mystery but always keeping enough momentum that we’re never bogged down in the not-knowing. The film is introspective, ruminative, poetic, experimental. Its sliding timelines isn’t always easy to keep track of, but magnetic performances from Miller and Luna smooth the ugly transitions. Miller mines for emotional gold and finds lots of gems along the way. Luna, meanwhile, runs the whole spectrum from good guy to bad and back again.

A romance crossed with a supernatural thriller, Wander Darkly is unpredictable and uneven, but writer-director Tara Miele has something to add about the complexity of relationships, and even this startling story line has plenty to relate to.

Sundance 2021: Mass

I’ve seen a unicorn rip a man’s guts out, an axe chop a man’s toes off, and an eyeball skewered on a sharp metal tent peg. It’s Sundance, and I’ve seen some shit. And yet nothing prepared me to watch Mass, a movie about four middle aged adults sitting around a folding table in a church rental space.

It’s hard to say who’s more reluctant to be there – Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), or Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton). Richard and Linda’s son killed Jay and Gail’s in a school shooter incident years ago, and this is an attempt for healing, or closure, or something other than the smothering pain they’ve been living in.

One room, 4 people, 110 minutes of emotionally exhausting confrontation, conversation, and contemplative silence. A movie like this either succeeds or it doesn’t based on two things: the script, and the performances.

The script, by director Fran Kranz, is restrained, nimble, as revealing as it is concealing. It’s almost voyeuristic to sit in on such an intimate and fraught conversation, but while we think we know where the lines will be drawn, Kranz shows the grief, victimhood, and aftermath of a mass school shooting is as complex as the event itself. It is natural to want to identify causes and assign blame, but here, in this room, guilt and innocence overlap.

Kranz is himself an actor with an intuitive sense of how dialogue can rise and fall, and how grief can express itself in more than just words. In this claustrophobic space, all four performances are committed; there is trauma and sorrow on both sides of the table. Each has lost a son. But Jay and Gail persist. They want, nay, they need to know: did Richard and Linda see this coming? Is there something they could and should have done? There isn’t going to be an easy answer here, just pain across four faces. Recrimination, bitterness, anger, empathy, and loss. There are heavy burdens in this room and perhaps Kranz is a little inclined to tidy them up by the end, but grief isn’t something you fix or get over. It’s something you learn to live with – the question is, will this conversation help them do so, and if not, can anything?

Love Sarah

Sarah and her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) were on the verge of opening up their very own bakery, a long time shared aspiration, when Sarah died tragically, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams and a lease that Isabella was now responsible for alone, despite having lost her baker, an essential element in most bakeries, you’ll find.

Sarah’s aimless daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) and her estranged mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) decide to join her in Sarah’s stead. And Sarah’s ex, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), shows up too, thank goodness, because this bakery was still very much in need of a baker, although it turns out Isabella is perfectly capable of doing the baking, she just lacked the confidence. But that’s not all Matthew’s contributing to the bakery! He’s also putting out daddy vibes, leaving Clarissa to question whether he might the mystery father she’s never known and her mother never revealed. Oh, and he makes the pretty pastries of course, which do indeed look good enough to eat, so if food porn is what you’re after, this movie’s got loads, presented rather prettily on a buffet of white platters. But for some reason, they’re just not selling. The bakery makes no money at all until they decide to rebrand and start baking up international delights to lure in London’s many and varied immigrants.

The bakery thriving or failing is almost secondary to these characters’ healing, which they’re all needing to slightly different extents. Healing takes different forms of course – romance, success, family, forgiveness – and it’s not just the bakery at work but the fact that these four people have found each other in their hour of need and created a community for themselves that fosters connection and leaves everyone just a little less isolated with their grief or their loneliness.

On a scale from “microwaving for one” to “molecular gastronomy,” Love Sarah is canned pasta sauce, not particularly complex or memorable, but easy and comforting. It’s sweet, it’s got wonderful performances, it feels good in a heartening, borderline inspirational way. It’s very watchable, and would in fact pair well with a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk.

Over The Moon

When Fei Fei is a little girl, her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) tells her about the moon goddess Chang’e. The popular myth says that many, many years ago, ten suns rose in the sky together, scorching the Earth. The archer Houyi shot down nine of them, and was rewarded an elixir for immortality. He did not take it as he did not wish to become immortal without his beloved wife Chang’e. But one day his apprentice broke into his house to steal it, and to prevent him gaining it, Chang’e drank it herself. She ascended to the heavens, choosing the moon as her residence, where she mourns her husband to this day, because true love lasts forever.

Fei Fei’s mother passed away, and every year when her family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, there’s an extra reason to remember her mother. But this year she is surprised to learn that her father (John Cho) has invited an unexpected guest: his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin. Upset by this sudden turn of events, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) decides to build a rocket ship to the moon so she can enlist Chang’e’s help to remind her father that true love (ie, his first love, ie, Fei Fei’s mother) is forever. She and bunny Bungee (plus stowaway Chin) are surprisingly successful, but the moon isn’t exactly what she’d anticipated. Her first friend is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a pangolin former royal advisor who was exiled 1000 years ago; he has some important wisdom to impart about loneliness, if only Fei Fei would listen. But she’s still determined to enlist Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), a goddess in the form of a rock star, and every bit as demanding and self-interested as one.

Over The Moon is a new offering from Netflix, an animated musical film appropriate for the whole family. It’s more in the style of Laika films than Disney or Pixar, but unfortunately doesn’t reach the heights of any of these. Although it does use one of Disney’s favourite tropes, the dead mom, it teaches a lesson about a different kind of grief. The visuals are stunning and the moon adventure is sure to please any young child, with rap-battle ping pong games and softly glowing creatures, it’s hard to deny. But the moon adventure is book-ended with family scenes reminiscent of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another movie that used food as an excuse to gather and grieve. These scenes are tinged with loss but also hint that life can move on. It is heartfelt but not emotionally manipulative. Some of the feelings are nuanced enough that they may be complicated for very young audience members to understand, but anyone who has loved and lost will feel something familiar here, and that’s a pretty good reason to watch.

The King of Staten Island

Spoiler alert: it’s Pete Davidson. He’s the king of Staten Island. Supposably. You know, Pete Davidson. The young SNL cast member who told us, from experience, that you shouldn’t choose your rehab while you’re high (I believe “equine therapy” was involved), and who was briefly engaged to Ariana Grande.

Pete Davidson has obviously had his share of addictions issues. He’s suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder. His mom got him through high school by bribing him with stand-up in exchange for his attendance. He smokes weed so he can perform. He smokes weed to treat his Crohn’s, a painful medical condition. He smokes weed because he likes it. And maybe he smokes weed to forget his traumatic personal connection to the most horrific day in American history: his father, a fire-fighter, died in 9/11.

The King of Staten Island, a collaboration between Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow, is a semi-autobiographical film about Davidson’s particular relationship/struggle with growing up.

“Scott” (Davidson) is a 20-something pothead who dreams of being a tattoo artist, as evidenced by some very inconsistent ink on his friends’ bodies. One of his canvasses/victims is a 9 year old boy, and you can bet that boy’s father is soon pounding on Scott’s mom’s door. Did I mention he still lives with his mom? He does. His younger sister has recently gone off to college and now his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) is mourning her empty nest while also not actually benefiting from it because of course Scott won’t/can’t actually leave, drawing permanent stickmen on his friends’ torsos not paying particularly well/at all. But it turns out that tattooing a 9 year old boy has an upside: the boy’s angry father Ray (Bill Burr) takes Margie out on her first date in 17 years. Which, admittedly, is nicer for her than it is for Scott, who isn’t exactly keen to see his dead father replaced, isn’t a big fan Ray, and isn’t thrilled to be displaced by him.

Judd Apatow is of course the king of comedy. He’s paired up with Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Adam Sandler (Funny People) and Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) – comedians at the top of their game, or just cresting their fame, and Apatow’s gotten career-best performances out of all of them. It’s weird then that this collab with Davidson has set new watermarks for both juvenile humour and serious themes. Together they navigate sacrifice and childhood trauma but manage to season generously with firehouse frat-boy antics. Like most of Apatow’s films, it’s long for a comedy; the script is loose, breezy even, and Apatow gives his actors plenty of space. It’s low-key for the most part, but it hits on both fragility and hilarity with surprising ease. Pete Davidson may not be the most versatile of actors, but he’s good enough to play some version of himself, seemingly relaxed and comfortable, and hopefully somewhat cleansed by the process. Healing comes in all shapes and sizes and grief is a malleable, personal thing. Sometimes it even looks like an R-rated comedy.

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