'An Elephant in the Room': Film Review | SXSW 2020

AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM Still 1 - Publicity_h 2020
Good Company Pictures
A sympathetic but unenlightening portrait of caregiving.

Katrine Philp's SXSW-winning doc spends time with participants in a New Jersey program for grieving children.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

The winner of this year's Documentary Feature award at the virtual version of SXSW, Katrine Philp's An Elephant in the Room spends time with participants in a New Jersey program called Good Grief, whose probably inadvertent invocation of Charlie Brown hints at its focus: The Morristown group is built around children who have lost parents, placing them in group therapy sessions and in more school-like settings where their struggles will be understood by peers. An observational doc that interviews some children but not those designing their environment, the film exudes empathy, as you'd expect, but struggles to find a compelling point of view. Despite the sympathy viewers will naturally feel for the young subjects and those caring for them, Elephant has little to teach us about the grieving process and how children may experience it differently from adults.

It starts arrestingly, with a young boy speaking to the camera and trying to describe how his father's death felt. It was like a really bad stubbed toe, he says — an extreme understatement that poignantly shows how difficult it can be to describe emotional pain.

Soon we're at Good Grief, watching something akin to group therapy sessions. A "talking stick" is passed from child to child as introductions are made. From there, we observe what often look like normal preschool or elementary school activities. There are craft projects, sometimes geared toward visual expressions of how kids' families have changed; there's a padded room, appropriate both for general horsing around and as refuge for a kid who needs a quick break from those around him.

Philp follows children home with their surviving guardians — in one case, an uncle has to care for a boy whose parents both died — and listens in on their discussions. We drop in on visits to gravesites, talk of Heaven, and so on. But while we see many of the same children over the course of the film, there's very little sense of a progression through stages of grief. There's certainly no explanation of how Good Grief's programs might be designed to carry children through the process.

Instead, we too often get banal scenes of child care and rituals of mourning. After the fourth (!) scene in which kids and guardians set balloons or flying lanterns sailing into the sky, a viewer might wonder if there aren't ways to pay respects to the dead while respecting the environment, as well.

Production company: Good Company Pictures
Director: Katrine Philp
Producer: Katrine Sahlstrom
Executive producers: Boris B. Bertram, Patricia Drati, Kaspar Astrup Schroder
Director of photography: Adam Morris Philp
Editor: Signe Kaufmann
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)

87 minutes