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The Grief of Others

(2015) *** 1/2 Unrated
103 min. . Director: Patrick Wang. Cast: Rachel Dratch, Wendy Moniz, Trevor St. John.

/content/films/4788/1.jpegPerhaps no theme has more thoroughly suffused modern literature than personal losses chased by the Kubler-Ross-model and/or personal trauma and its PTSD aftermath. Considering the universality of grief, it's for the common good that novels on the subject proliferate, and certainly for the best when the theme gets a rich and sensitive treatment. While the subject matter of Patrick Wang's sophomore feature The Grief of Others—and the 2011 Leah Hager Cohen novel on which it is based—amounts to standard fare, audiences can all the more appreciate the thoughtful rigor applied by a team of artists working from page to screen.

In 2011, theater-trained Wang cemented his indie-film credibility and earned plaudits with his feature film directorial debut In the Family. With his sophomore feature, Wang again proves himself a resourceful filmmaker, both in overcoming budgetary limitations and in storytelling approach. The Grief of Others can boast a productive balance of masculine and feminine energies both by nature of its roster of characters and Wang's own distinct sensitivity to emotional currents.

The story concerns the Ryrie family, a rickety unit haunted by the recent loss of a child just fifty-seven hours after his birth. John (Trevor St. John of In the Family) and Ricky (Wendy Moniz) remain functional as parents and even as a married couple, but a subtly evident fragility and eroding communication skills threaten the union. Their precocious children, too, show signs of waywardness and strain: thirteen-year-old Paul (Jeremy Shinder) isn't coping particularly well with being bullied (though an artistic outlet in black ink doesn't hurt), and ten-year-old Biscuit (Oona Laurence) has been cutting school to stare into the Hudson River.

The film's opening passages find Biscuit discovered by Gordie Joiner (Mike Faist), who returns the girl to John and begins, in one of the film's rare comic moments, a beautiful friendship with the Ryries. Gordie winds up bonding most with the young woman who extends the family: Jessica (Sonya Harum), John's pregnant daughter from a previous relationship. Gordie's facing his own fresh pain, from the death of his father: as Gordie and Jessica look around his house, they discover together the value of some outsider art—"heartbreaking" dioramas created by Gordie's dad—may extend beyond the sentiments of the artist's son.

On the immediate surface, The Grief of Others bears a stylistic similarity to In the Family, with Wang’s penchants for long takes of real-time conversation and off-the-beaten-path casting (the semi-exception here: comedienne Rachel Dratch in an earnest turn). The new film departs in inventive ways that perhaps especially suit a literary adaptation beholden to efficient compression: internal monologue that comes into auditory focus almost like a radio being tuned between channels, and faded double or triple exposures to reconstruct visual memory, overlapping consciousness or meaningful existential connections between one place and another. In particular, the film’s final moments dazzle in this respect: a river runs through the ending, consecrating the family home with useful ritual and productive symbolism letting light back in to the shadowed place and darkened lives.

Wang’s adapted screenplay resists easy clichés and embraces opportunities to undercut the same (averring that her life is not a coming-of-age story, Jessica cracks, “It’s not the Oxygen network”). And it says a lot about Wang’s skill with the actors (and his camera) that during a nuanced scene leading up to a surprising kiss, I could organically feel it coming despite no obvious gestures or looks to telegraph it. The acting can be uneven, but the raggedy bits are worth it for such momentary gems, and St. John's revelatory performance could be a breakout one.

For all this, The Grief of Others doesn't match the impact of In the Family, perhaps because of its efficient compression: while retaining a patient pace scene by scene, Wang slashes his run time. His first feature has three or four core characters and 169 minutes to deepen our understanding of them and their relationships; The Grief of Others' ensemble has six central characters and only 103 minutes. As a result, the film is more of a piecemeal collective story of an intersection of grief than a hearty collection of interlocked stories; audiences may find their understanding of and emotional bonds to the characters wanting (some have leveled a similar criticism at Cohen's novel).

Despite the slipsliding character focus and narrative elisions, Wang's new film is something of a triumph. By its very nature as a quiet drama, made independently in an increasingly unforgiving marketplace (it's hard to imagine even a commercial, Meryl Streep version of this material getting greenlit in today's Hollywood), The Grief of Others feels like a plea not only for healing compassion but for communal commitment to Hollywood-outsider art. Jessica says it of her emotionally splintered family, but it sounds like a broader social commentary: "Nobody lives on the same goddamn planet."

[Reviewed at the Camera Cinema Club in San Jose, California.] 

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