Tag Archives: Grief

Rosie

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    The brief but compelling story of a defining and tragic day in a young mother’s life, Rosie does an effective job building up tension and emotion, and the filmmaker’s use of natural light in his cinematography is commendable. I did think the director, Kieron Yeoman, could have gotten a better actress as the lead or maybe directed her a bit better. She’s strangely cavalier about an event that makes up the short film, albeit letting the occasional tear fall. I know if most moms lost their daughter in the way that this mom did, they’d be hysterical, puffy-faced, and frantic.

    The editing is unusually smooth for a short film. I’ve seen enough student shorts to know that the camera is often shaky, the visuals fuzzy, and the dialogue hard to understand. This is not the case of Rosie, which feels professional. The best I can say for this movie is that I would watch a full-length feature comprised of the same material. Does the woman know her daughter isn’t coming back? Did the law enforcement officials find the body? Was she snatched by a pederast, or did she (as I suspect) fall from the railing and into the ocean? A follow-up might be in order. Although, since the short film has no dialogue, I’m still not sure if ‘Rosie’ was the mother or the daughter. 

   Huh. How about that. I didn’t even realize Rosie had no dialogue until I really thought about it. As an example of effective visual storytelling, that’s pretty good. 

Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman

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Told through the eyes of a highly unusual eight-year-old boy coping with grief and the disintegration of his remaining family members, Up High in the Trees is a poetic first effort by Kiara Brinkman. Sebby has a highly sophisticated, personal, and unique voice unusual for his age group, and the story is told an undetermined amount of time after his mother is struck dead by a car in the night. Sebby, like any young boy bereaved of his mother, struggles with his loss, and his dad takes him to the summer house to recuperate, only to fall into a deep depression in which he is unable to take care of himself, let alone his bright, inquisitive son.

Many people have speculated that Sebby is on the Autism Spectrum, probably high-functioning Asperger’s, and many passages (including his sensitivities to light, color, and sound) seem to hint at this. He is never diagnosed, which is just as well, but even for a precocious boy with Asperger’s, Sebby’s voice seems highly unlikely at times. Often he seems like a psychology graduate channeling their inner child rather than a true eight-year-old. However, if you get past the initial humps (Sebby seems too sophisticated for a little kid, the other characters are a bit too thinly defined) Up High in the Trees is a compelling read.

The chapters are short and often abstract, like a fragment of a passing thought or dream. That makes it very readable, since you can read a chapter or two on a bus ride and finish them in no time at all. Sebby often fails to engage with others, living in a gauzy world where he retraces his mothers steps and treads among her memories. He and his mother shared a private world together, and now his siblings and dad are flummoxed by his failure to grieve in a normal way. What is the ‘normal’ way to grieve, anyway? Hankies and tears? Hugs and sentiments? Sebby is removed from planet Earth as most know it, preferring to chase memories of his mother than other kids.

He finds solace in an old camera, which he uses to take pictures of life as it is- without Mother. I really rooted for the reconciliation of Sebastian and Katya, a slightly older Russian immigrant. I couldn’t figure out why he was so mad at her. She was was protective and kind and even forgave him when he bit her on the shoulder! Instead, Sebby pursues friendship with Jackson and Shelly, two under-supervised ragamuffin kids who seem to engage in a lot of risk-taking activities.

I would like to read anything further that Kiara Brinkman writes. In this flawed but well-done novel, she explores being wired different in a neurotypical world, bereavement, and the meaning of family. Sebby’s brood fray and very nearly fall apart, and I guess that not all was well before his mother’s death, either.  But almost unraveling is what eventually puts them together and makes them stronger as a family. I hope you can derive inspiration from this brief but effective read.

An Infinite Tenderness (1972)

“An Infinite Tenderness” is a beautiful piece of fiction, disguising itself as a documentary, exploring the world of brain-damaged children. It has no A-listers and no dialogue, but is probably more moving than any other film you’ll see this year.


Hollywood is full of saccharine, off-putting, and thoroughly uninspiring films about the mentally disabled. This French experiment challenges preconceptions of a group of people viewed alternately with pity and mocking derision.

Simon is a boy confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, who spends his lonely and monotonous days in a white-washed children’s home, cared for with a grim sense of duty by a black nurse.

The beginning of the film is reminiscent of the first 20 minutes of Mark Hanlon’s 1999 indie thriller “Buddy Boy” in its sense of gloom and repetition, but unlike Hanlon’s abused stuttering protagonist Francis, Simon keeps a positive attitude for a while, until he too loses his thunder and begins to look at each new day with apprehension and low spirits.

That is, until he meets Emmanuele, who, contrary to the Netflix description, is quite male. Emmanuelle, who has a very similar disability to Simon, communicates through dog-like barks and howls. They begin to connect through touch, art, and music, and open a door inside themselves they didn’t know existed.

Now this all sounds very Hollywood, with big-name actors hammily trying to get in touch with their inner spastic, but these kids have an inherent lovability that makes you sympathize with their plight.

They are resilient, without self-pity, even as life takes a s**t in their face. I felt a connection with Simon within the first five minutes. How often can you say that about a character, even one who does speak?

The film is tough going at first, with nothing happening within the first 45 minutes or so, but hang in there, because at about that point it picks up its pace. There’s even a death.

Moreover, this movie changed the way I looked at the severely retarded. Previously I saw these people as having little to offer anyone, almost parasitic in their dependance. When I watched this movie, I saw how much these two had to offer each other, in comfort, in affection. I know pretty, sappy, right? The child actors are physically disabled and mute but intellectually unimpaired, and Pierre Jallaud, directs them with finesse.

“An Infinite Tenderness” is for the patient only. But if you are one of those patient few, looking for that obscure film to move and wow you, I have one thing to say — watch this movie. Because if you are patient, chances are you won’t be disappointed.

An Infinite Tenderness

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

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10-year-old Caitlyn Smith has always coped better with her older brother Devon by her side. For a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, support from friends and family is crucial, and Devon teaches her how to fit in in her small Virginia town. But now Devon is gone, his life taken senselessly by a school shooter, and Caitlyn must navigate the confusing and sometimes hostile world without Devon’s guiding hand. Like many people with Asperger’s, Caitlyn is a literal and black-and-white thinker, and as she struggles to understand her loss and grapples with making friends and learning empathy, she decides that ‘closure’ is something she and her father would very much like.

“Mockingbird” is lyrical and sweet, however brief. Caitlyn isn’t like a stereotypical Aspie with a robotic narration solving math problems in her head. Her voice is unique, faraway but strong and present, and she is a gifted artist. Tentatively at her counselor Mrs. Brooks’ urging she befriends a six-year-old boy whose mother was killed in the shooting, and learns to cope.

The author was inspired to write this book after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. The crime was terrible, of course, but these things seem to be becoming so common that they all just sort of blur together for me. I remember Sandy Hook particularly shook me up because the victims were little kids and it was unimaginable that a grown man would want to go in there and do that to a bunch of Kindergartners.

There’s a considerable lack of depth in the secondary players (and a little bit more development of Josh, the second most interesting character, might of been in order) but this may reflect Caitlyn’s lack of understanding of her family and peers. I found myself oddly unmoved by the emotional element, although the prose is well structured. I didn’t cry or even really get sad reading it. Instead, I appreciated it, but it failed to make me experience big feelings.

Kathryn Erskine has written a sensitive book, and she has created an Aut-Lit (Autism Spectrum literature) narrative that is well-done and original. If she had written a bit more or gone deeper into the psychological/social/family aspects, it might have gotten a 4 Star Rating from me. “Mockingbird” is short and sweet, but lacks the bite or depth to make it a classic.

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Imagination (2007)

I’ll admit it, I didn’t come to this film with high hopes. I had seen Netflix reviewers trash it again and again, but I hoped that it would at least be original. By the middle, when the talking fruits showed up, I was waiting for the one hour ten minutes to end.

By the credits, I was wondering how such a horrific train wreck ever came into existence. There’s a vague possibility that this could have been a good, albeit strange, film. What went wrong? As it turns out, almost everything.

The plot (if you can call it that) follows two prepubescent girls named Anna and Sarah through their joined imaginary realities. Their parents are struggling — Sarah is nearly blind, and Anna has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. As their psychiatrist attempts to understand their increasingly bizarre fantasies, we watch dream-like sequences done through stop-motion animation and special effects. When tragedy strikes, the girls retreat further into their imaginations, causing the psychiatrist to wonder what the visions mean.

That’s pretty much the sum of the story, avoiding spoilers. It actually was an interesting idea, visualizing two introverted girls’ secret world. The result, however, is horrendous. First of all the acting is pathetic — it’s hard to watch. As you watch the actors’ pitiable attempts to be “emotional,” you wonder how they could have possibly set themselves up for this kind of humiliation.

It feels like the director went out to a local park, watched people for a while, and chose a few, asking them to be in a movie. They agreed, despite their complete lack of dramatic skills. The two girl’s performances are understandable — they’re still young, after all. However, watching the adults, especially the psychiatrist, desperately trying to play their roles leaves you shaking your head in horror.

The other problem with Imagination is that Anna’s “Asperger’s Syndrome” and Sarah’s blindness are pointless, more or less just there to rationalize bizarre dream sequences. What may have helped this film is to explain why the girls “live in a world all their own.” Anna, we are told again and again, “can’t socialize,” but we rarely see her interact with anyone in the film.

It would have been interesting — more interesting, perhaps, than the weird trip scenes — to try to explain Sarah and Anna’s need to go into their own realities. Ben X did this efficiently. We understood why the main character, Ben, became obsessed with the virtual world and tuned out of real life. Imagination, however, is obviously a miserable attempt to play with hallucinogenic effects and claymation, without a glimmer of character development or logic to make sense of it.

There is one good quality, however. Even though the filmmakers got so many other things wrong, their skills at claymation are apparent. One scene, in particular, is darkly creative and weird, in a good way. In this case, the bizarre imagery actually attracted my attention. It makes you kind of wish they had kicked out the actors and let the clay figures take center stage.

All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this movie to practically anyone, unless they are especially fond of weird for weird’s sake. Do not watch this looking for a realistic or informative view of Asperger’s — you won’t find it here. If you want something unusual, watch The Fall — in fact, watch practically anything else. Just stay far away from this bizarre, pointless mess of a movie.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

Gentle and bittersweet, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is the second movie adaptation of “Everything is Illuminated” author Jonathan Safron Foer’s novel. Although the movie is littered with stars such as Viola Davis, Tom Hanks, and Sandra Bullock, newcomer Thomas Horn steals the show in a flawless performance as Oskar Schell, a troubled eleven-year-old prodigy struggling with his dad (Hanks’) death in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Oskar could be rude, he could treat people sh**ty, but I immediately rooted for him. It helps that he reminded me of a friend of my brother’s I’m fond of. While Oskar’s dad was alive, he would send him on scavenger hunts. When Oskar rummages through his dad’s closet and finds a key with a word on it, Oskar believes his father wants him to find the lock the key belongs to.

Oskar probably has Asperger’s, and that becomes a factor as he travels through New York City battling anxiety, loud noises, and his own worst fears about Urban terrorism. Meanwhile, his well-meaning mother (Sandra Bullock) tries to get through to her angry loner son. I wasn’t sure about Sandra Bullock prior to this movie because I thought she was undeserving of the Oscar for “The Blind Side” but she was good here. You can’t help but feel for her when her son throws angry words in her direction.

Linda (the mom)’s unconditional love for her son touched me, as did her quiet grief, but Oskar and the otherwise unnamed ‘The Renter’ played by Max Von Sydow were my favorite characters. ‘The Renter,’ true to his title, rents a room from Oskar’s grandmother and accompanies Oskar on his perilous quest.

The only complaint I have with this movie is that the premise was very unrealistic. I mean, the word ‘Black’ that comes with the key could meet anything and Oskar is immediately on the right track. Not only that, but as Oskar looks for people with the last name ‘Black,’ he doesn’t even think that not only is ‘Black’ a ridiculously common name, but there’s no guarantee that if this ‘Black’ is a person, that they live in New York city!

I liked Oskar a lot. I liked his way of looking at things. Thomas Horn interpreted Oskar honestly and touchingly. This is one of the most underrated child performances of all time (probably because the movie wasn’t received well, for what reasons are mysterious to me.) I wanted him to be happy, and move beyond the tragedy of his dad’s death and the tragedy of 9/11 in general. Many lives were affected that day, and this movie offers sympathy to both the lives lost and those left behind.

To breach another subject, I thought the depiction of Asperger’s  was very good as someone diagnosed with the condition. The funny, idiosyncratic things Oskar said seemed very typical for someone with AS, while his social anxiety was easy to relate to. A lot of movies exaggerate AS symptoms for ‘Hollywood’ effect, making the hero some kind of head-banging, socially defective prodigy. I mean “Rain Man,” that was put out near the beginning of Autism research. But “Mozart and the Whale?” Seriously?

And let’s not forget how good the entire cast was throughout this movie. Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Max Von Sydow, Thomas Horn of course… they all played their roles wonderfully and were touching and likable. I’d say Von Sydow and Horn were the standouts among this amazing cast. Von Sydow as the silent renter had no spoken lines, but managed to convey emotion like a pro. I’m going to have to diverge from the critics and say this movie is absolutely worth seeing. It’s worth it.

Girlfriend (2010)

I can’t believe it! A film with a disabled character who isn’t a maudlin stereotype? Will wonders never cease? “Girlfriend,” in the spirit of “Sling Blade” or “Treacle Jr.,” creates a unique and engaging protagonist with a intellectual impairment. But this time, the actor who plays the lead (Evan Sneider) is also disabled.

Afflicted with Down Syndrome, Evan (Sneider) lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) in a small town that offers few options. Meanwhile Evan is enamored with old high school crush and single mother Candy (Shannon Woodward), whose feelings toward Evan and his challenges are ambiguous.

Into this scenario swaggers Candy’s white trash ex-boyfriend Russ (Jackson Rathbone, venomously unlikable and liberated from the “Twilight” franchise). When Evan’s mother dies, his attraction to Candy only intensifies, and all three are caught in triangle that will leave none untouched.

One of the reasons I watched this movie was that I heard Amanda Plummer was in it, so it was disappointing to have her die in the first ten minutes. Nevertheless, Evan’s mother Celeste is one of the best portrayals and most real characters in this story.

Far from being a typical movie hero mom, Celeste has her good days and her bad, like any other mom. There is one scene where Celeste represses her rage at her and Evan’s oppressive employer with a subtle facial twitch which I felt really displayed Amanda Plummer’s acting talent.

In fact, the only performance I felt was a little weak is Sneider’s. I know, I feel like I’m picking on the disabled kid in the lunchroom, but Sneider was not prepared to take some of the dramatic turns the story took. Nevertheless, his occasional faltering didn’t distract me from the story too much.

Evan is a very interesting character in that I got to see him exercise his dark side a little, which is rare in a movie like this. It’s always aggravated me the way people desexualize people with disabilities, so seeing Evan experience libido and exhibit desire for a relationship — and yes, sex — was refreshing.

I found the ending a little convoluted. You know that moment when things are resolved only as they are in the movies? Yeah, like that. The final twist was similarly unsatisfying, as I think sex shouldn’t be something you give out to compensate for past mistakes. At the same time, though, I was kind of impressed they were daring enough to end it that way.

Overall, “Girlfriend” is a very underrated and intriguing movie about small town relationships and the limitations we all have. This is writer/director Justin Lerner’s first feature-length movie, and I hope to see more of him very soon. I recommend this film to anybody who loves independent movies.