'The Grief of Others': Cannes Review

A small-scale drama that's impressive in parts

Patrick Wang's second feature is an adaptation of a Leah Hager Cohen novel and stars Trevor St. John and Wendy Moniz as the parents of a family going through tough times

Patrick Wang’s debut feature, In the Family, was a minutely observed, deceptively straightforward and finally deeply moving story of a gay father and his non-biological son who have to fight to stay together. It should thus come as no surprise that Wang would be interested in adapting The Grief of Others, the Leah Hager Cohen novel about a family slowly coming to the realization they need to fight to stay together after the death of a newborn hits the clan like a bomb. A step up in terms of complexity, with more subplots and a larger cast of protagonists to juggle and less instantly sympathetic characters or an evident cause to rally behind, this drama again offers many quiet, often character-driven rewards but struggles to become larger than the sum of its parts. After a SXSW competition slot in March, the movie will have its international premiere on the Croisette in the Acid sidebar.

In terms of distribution, it has one major advantage: In the Family clocked in at almost three hours whereas The Grief of Others is less than 105 minutes long. But without any star power, this realistic, intentionally unpretentious drama will remain a tough sell for all but the most passionate boutique distributors.

John and Ricky Ryrie (Trevor St. John and Wendy Moniz) live with their two kids, a somewhat heavyset 13-year-old, Paul (Jeremy Shinder), and his younger sister, Biscuit (Oona Laurence), in a small town on the Hudson. At first they might seem like a pretty regular clan but odd details start accumulating from the beginning, such as when a handsome 19-year-old (Mike Faist) has to fish Biscuit out of the river and take her home and it’s not immediately clear how she ended up in the Hudson in the first place (audiences already know she’s been skipping school).

Her older brother is ruthlessly bullied by his peers and tries to compensate with a wise-ass attitude but somewhat oddly, the kids’ troubles seem to never really penetrate the haze in which John and Ricky seem to be living. Not only are they too busy with work and making ends meet, they’re also nurturing the wounds from the almost immediate loss of their newborn that occurred not much before the story starts. To complicate matters even further, the family dynamics are upset by the arrival of the essentially decent Jess (Sonya Harum), John’s daughter from a previous marriage who’s pregnant herself and who’ll be staying with her father and his new family until her own little one’s born.

Wang’s background is in theater and that’s visible in the way he sets up most of his shots, which tend to be long, mostly static and give characters quite a lot of room, but also in the way the essence of practically each scene is derived from the situation and the actors and rarely the camerawork (shot somewhat perfunctorily on 16mm by cinematographer Frank Barrera). Indeed, Wang’s realism is much closer to 19th-century literary giants obsessed with daily life and family relationships like Chekhov and Ibsen than the work of directors such as the Dardenne brothers. A few conspicuous moments in which Wang uses superimposed images only underline how unshowy the rest of the film is from a technical point of view.

Editor Elwaldo Baptiste’s cutting is equally unobtrusives, though the overarching story structure is neither linear nor entirely smooth. Some of the subplots are too fragmented to feed organically into the narrative whole while some initially rather enigmatic scenes seem to unfold in a red haze.

The story’s main conflict slowly comes to a boil with a horrible discovery, in a drawn-out flashback in the film’s first half, that puts a real strain on the relationship between John and Ricky, as well as their bonds with their offspring. By inserting it as a flashback, there’s a suggestion that that pivotal past event might be both a cause and a result of their fears and insecurities.

Minutely observing the dynamics from scene to scene, Wang again works wonders with the adult actors especially (St. John was Wang’s co-star in In the Family). Some of their best work is showcased in small throwaway scenes, such as when Moniz’s character calls her own father, supposedly to ask him about a completely irrelevant story from her youth but really to reassure herself she’s still part of a family and capable of being loved.

Though the intentionally somewhat drab sets are often basic, the rare use of color — especially red — connects certain key scenes visually.

Production companies: In the Family, Vanishing Angle
Cast: Trevor St. John, Wendy Moniz, Jeremy Shinder, Oona Laurence, Sonya Harum, Rachel Dratch, Mike Faist
Writer-director: Patrick Wang, screenplay based on the novel by Leah Hager Cohen
Producers: Jim Cummings, Erich Lochner, Matt Miller, Patrick Wang, Ben Wiessner
Director of photography: Frank Barrera
Production designers: Owen Hope, Danny Madden
Costume designer: Michael Bevins
Editor: Elwaldo Baptiste
Music: Aaron Jordan
Casting: Cindi Rush

Not rated, 103 minutes