THE STORY – Lily and Paul summon their loved ones to their beach house for one final gathering before Lily decides to end her long battle with ALS. The couple is planning a loving weekend complete with holiday traditions, but the mood becomes strained when unresolved issues surface between Lily and her daughters Jennifer and Anna.
THE CAST – Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Lindsay Duncan, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson & Bex Taylor-Klaus
THE TEAM – Roger Michell (Director) & Christian Torpe (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
“Euthanasia drama” is not exactly the kind of genre that gets butts in seats these days (or any days, really), but that’s what Roger Michell’s “Blackbird” is – and it’s about as easy a watch as any such film could possibly be. Lily (Susan Sarandon) has ALS and has decided that she doesn’t want to live through all the pain and loss of dignity that the most advanced stages of the disease would bring upon her. So she and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) invite her family – daughters Jennifer and Anna (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska), who bring their husband and son (Rainn Wilson and Anson Boon) and on-again-off-again girlfriend (Bex Taylor-Klaus), respectively – and her best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan) to their isolated home for one last family celebration. As is the way of such things, long-held resentments and closely-guarded secrets rise to the surface and threaten to turn Lily’s goodbye toxic.
Thankfully, screenwriter Christian Torpe (adapting his own Danish film) has injected healthy amounts of humor so that the film is neither bleak nor melodramatic. Rather, the screenplay feels completely natural, perfectly capturing the family dynamics that can turn from playful to cruel and back again in a heartbeat. Each character is beautifully drawn in the screenplay, and the ensemble breathes full life into them in their performances. This feels like a real family, from uptight Winslet’s perfectly pitched passive aggressiveness towards free spirit Wasikowska to Neill and Sarandon’s intimate warmth to the prickliness between Duncan and almost everyone else. Every performer gets their moment to shine, and by the end, it feels like we really know these people, and are rooting for them to overcome their foibles in the future.
Director Roger Michell has come up with an interesting visual style for the film, with characters constantly so far to one side of the frame that they’re practically off-screen. It’s a somewhat obvious nod to Lily’s being close to leaving this world, but it never feels too heavy. Shooting in long takes with a mostly static camera gives the performers the freedom to interact in ways that feel natural, adding to the rhythms of the screenplay to make this all feel real. Michell does overplay his hand in some ways, particularly in his deployment of Peter Gregson’s aching string music, but mostly he keeps things moving, attentive to the family dynamic of the performers.
It is the performers who really lift “Blackbird”, with Sarandon especially finding lovely grace notes in her portrayal of Lily. Taking her cues from Torpe’s mostly unsentimental script, he’s just tart enough throughout to never fall into the overly melodramatic traps the role of “dying mom” presents, which keeps the film from tipping over into treacly sentimentality. Wasikowska finds a believable core of despair in Anna, who is uncomfortably opposed to her mother’s decision but knows her status as black sheep of the family means she can’t really say anything. Duncan is perhaps the film’s secret weapon, knowing exactly when to embed herself in the family drama and when to remove herself from it, even when she’s right in the middle of it. The many scenes of the ensemble just being around each other contain such infectious joy that they’re a delight to watch, even though we know the family dynamics are such that these moments surely will not last for long.
Even though “Blackbird” is about an incredibly difficult thing, the generosity of spirit offered by the performers keeps it enjoyable to watch. When combined with Michell’s light hand as a director, this can sometimes leave the feeling more slight than it probably should feel, but considering how depressing films about euthanasia tend to do be, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The keenly observed family dynamics of the screenplay allow for great performances from a talented cast.
THE BAD – So tidy that it ends up feeling more “nice” than emotionally impactful.
THE OSCARS – None