'Childless': Film Review

Courtesy of Monterey Media
Listening to these self-absorbed characters ramble on endlessly is an enervating experience

The family members of a recently deceased teenage girl address their emotional issues directly to the camera in Charlie Levi's experimental film drama

Interwoven monologues have long been a theatrical staple, but the device is used to awkward effect in Charlie Levi's directorial debut concerning the reactions of four family members to the death of a sixteen-year-old girl. Despite fine performances by the central ensemble including Joe Mantegna, Barbara Hershey, Diane Venora and James Naughton, Childless doesn't succeed in making its audacious stylistic conceit work effectively onscreen.

The film, which was shot in 2008, is set in the immediate aftermath of the vivacious Katherine's (Natalie Dreyfuss) sudden death, possibly by suicide. Among those grieving are her shell-shocked father Richard (Mantegna), his ex-girlfriend Mary (Venora), wary that the event has precipitated a reunion; Richard's sister Natalie (Hershey), consumed with her own marital issues; and her husband Harvey (Naughton), a diplomat newly returned home from one of his many trips abroad.

Each one relates at length their various personal issues, addressing the camera as if happy to have someone in which to confide. Also commenting from beyond the grave is Katherine, who seems to be observing the adults' peccadillos with no small amount of amusement.

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While Eugene O'Neill—who pioneered the form in modern times with his soliloquy-driven experimental drama Strange Interlude—made the device work, director/screenwriter Levi is far less successful. For one thing, his characters are almost uniformly self-absorbed and unlikable. Their commentaries are rambling and digressive to the point of distraction, with Natalie, for instance, mostly concerned with her carefully maintained sex appeal. Her equally obnoxious husband, meanwhile, sneers, "No question about it, she'd have been a terrible mother." Mary, an artist, is bohemian to a fault, smoking a joint in the limo transporting her to the funeral.

Even Richard, the father, has relatively little to say about his devastating loss, other than commenting about the sight of his daughter in her coffin that "she looked…claustrophobic."

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The monologues are occasionally interrupted by snippets of vintage home movies that provide an ironic counterpoint to the often less than accurate observations of the principals. In the final section taking place at the funeral where Richard has an angry confrontation with Katherine's grieving mother (Jordan Baker), the film briefly adopts a more conventional narrative style.

The performers--all veteran stage actors save for Hershey--handle their duties with skillful fluidity, playing to the perennially moving camera as they would to a live audience. But despite their best efforts, Childless comes across as a cinematic experiment that's more wearisome than illuminating.

Production: SEALION Films
Cast: Barbara Hersey, Joe Mantegna, James Naughton, Diane Venora, Jordan Baker, Natalie Dreyfuss
Director/screenwriter: Charlie Levi
Producer: Graham Leader
Director of photography: Michael Rafferty
Production designer: Jodie Lynn Tillen
Editor: Eva Gardos
Costume designer: Christopher Lawrence
Composer: John Petersen
Casting: Lindsay Chag

Rated R, 87 min.