'The Rest of Us': Film Review | Palm Springs 2020

The Rest of Us Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of PSIFF
Sharply written and sensitively played.

Two mother-daughter pairs, left in different ways by the same man, form an unlikely quartet in a Canadian drama starring Heather Graham and Jodi Balfour.

First and second wives are natural enemies, one bitter and the other greedy: That well-traveled cliché has fueled countless comedies and dramas alike. In its low-key way, The Rest of Us — starring Heather Graham as the ex-spouse and Jodi Balfour as newly widowed Wife No. 2 — upends those supposed truths. The helming debut of Aisling Chin-Yee has an unforced immediacy, effortlessly balancing off-center charm, compassion and a comic edge as it delves into the messy emotional territory of Alanna Francis' screenplay. A month after its Palm Springs premiere, this well-observed four-hander by and about women will receive a limited theatrical release and begin streaming.

At the center of the conflicted, complex and likable quartet is Graham's Cami, an accomplished illustrator and author. She's the story's matriarch of sorts, a domestic goddess holding things together — or pretending to — in her new swimming-pool dream house. While her daughter, Aster (an exceptional Sophie Nélisse), is home on summer break after her first year of college, Cami's ex dies suddenly, in the bathtub. "I didn't know he took baths" is Aster's stunned/barbed response to the news.

After learning that he left his second family penniless, Cami, spurred by sympathy that's complicated by a particular guilt which the movie brings gradually into the light, invites the younger woman, Rachel (Balfour, of The Crown), and her watchful tween daughter, Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky), to stay with her. Aster, who felt shunted aside for the past 10 years of her life while her father focused on his new family, fumes in horror over the plan, especially when Rachel claims the trailer on the property, where the teen has enjoyed some autonomy while back home with Mom.

Rachel, it quickly becomes apparent, is not conniving but naïve. Though the speed with which she lands a job defies credulity, the back-and-forth between her and Cami is as believable as it is unpredictable. Even while Cami is guarding a huge secret, there's a genuineness to her acts of generosity, whether carefully crafted or spontaneous — the lovingly cooked meals, the financial advice, the maternal warmth toward Talulah.

Aster too has a secret, one that involves the boyfriend (Charlie Gillespie) of her best friend (Tameka Griffiths). And though it's mild compared with Cami's off-the-charts clandestine maneuvers, it makes her more like her mother than she'd care to admit. Rachel, meanwhile, veers between being pragmatic and acting out childishly, while Talulah appears to be both wise and caught in a state of denial that echoes her mother's.

Neither the screenplay nor the agile direction insists on neat resolutions for any of the characters, and there's a double-edged charge as the foursome make collective and individual progress, slide back and try again: the women recognizing each other in ways they otherwise never would have imagined, the half-sisters slowly becoming friends.

The actors are all strong, with Graham delivering one of her most subtle performances. Nélisse masters Aster's exasperation, broodiness and wiseass but insightful back talk ("Your need to be a saint is pathological," she tells her mother) which such confidence that you'll wonder where you've seen her before (unless you saw The Book Thief or watch French-Canadian TV, you probably haven't) and be eager to see what she does next.

Though Francis' screenplay is full of zingers, there's nothing sitcommy about the writing; it moves with the pulse of people who instinctively know how to hurt one another, and it stings because you see their self-reproach too, and their struggles to be kind to themselves.

Daniel Grant's camerawork in this Ontario-shot feature has a fluidity that's in tune with the story's shifting perspectives and honors the tangled memories, resentments and longings. Chin-Yee, a Montreal-based producer at the helm of her first feature, has made an assured film, one that quietly defies stereotypes and gives us living, breathing allies where we've been taught to expect fundamentally opposed rivals.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (World Cinema Now)
Production companies: Babe Nation in association with Flimshow, Sugar Shack Productions, Woods Entertainment, Fluent Films
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Heather Graham, Sophie Nélisse, Abigail Pniowsky, Jodi Balfour, Charlie Gillespie, Tameka Griffiths
Director: Aisling Chin-Yee
Screenwriter: Alanna Francis
Producers: Katie Bird Nolan, Lindsay Tapscott, Emma Fleury, Will Woods
Executive producers: Damon D'Oliveira, Patrice Theroux, Mark Gingras, Dan Peel, John Laing
Director of photography: Daniel Grant
Production designer: Thea Holllatz
Costume designer: Jenna Wright
Editors: Véronique Barbe, Aisling Chin-Yee
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent, Melissa Smith

80 minutes