In John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film, a short amount of time in the life of a married couple who lost a child eight months earlier is examined. It’s a quiet portrait that, for the most part, doesn’t seek to explain, or resolve anything. It directly compares and contrasts several of the film’s characters, examining the ways they’ve found to mourn. Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) have arrived at different points in their grief. She has started purging physical reminders of her deceased son Danny, donating his clothes to Goodwill, speaking to a realtor about selling the house they all shared. Howie, on the other hand, is clinging to anything connected to his son, and attending group therapy. There’s a gap between the two that’s only growing larger.
It’s something that’s been seen and done hundreds of times. And it’s clear that neither Mitchell as the director, nor David Lindsay-Abaire (who wrote the play, and the film’s screenplay) aren’t attempting to say anything new about the process of death or grieving. Fortunately, they avoid the blame game as well. In a particularly well-written scene, the husband and wife make it clear that they are only blaming themselves for what they could have done to avoid what happened.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, there is a close focus on relationships among the survivors, a focus that provides a pleasing backdrop to the close-up, and more obvious sadness. Becca is made to deal with her light-hearted sister who has just discovered she’s pregnant. Becca also deals with a well-intentioned, but sometimes clueless mother (Diane Wiest) who also dealt with the death of son, albeit under drastically different circumstances.
The most moving among the connections we see in this movie is between Becca, and the teenage boy, Jason (Miles Teller), that killed her son in an unfortunate car accident. The two form a fragile, codependent relationship. He tentatively shares his future plans with her, and shows her a comic book he’s making, while intermittently finding ways to tell her he blames himself for what happens. She in the same subtle manner, assures him he needn’t accept or place any blame, that she’s more interested in finding an equally damaged friend to sit quietly with on a park bench. These are disarmingly sweet and tenuous scenes, with dialog and acting that do more for the film, than when the characters express their emotions in more obvious and severe ways.
The acting as a whole are what immediately saves the film from falling into the tired pattern of films surrounding the loss of a loved one. Kidman and Eckhart are a match made in heaven. The chemistry in Becca and Howie’s marriage is damaged, and although we never get to see it in its former glory, somehow we know what it once was, and we miss it. While occasionally, as would realistically be expected, emotions and tempers run high. But the actors do much more with the quiet, understated moments between these outbursts. The film is sad. But there’s humor. And there’s a sense of hope as the characters shoulder through one of life’s toughest challenges. It’s a pleasing, and award-worthy film that deserves to be seen sooner rather than later.