Greetings again from the darkness. The emotional strain associated with being estranged from one’s family reaches a level only those involved can comprehend. In this touching film from writer-director Andrea Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado, we focus on the return and attempted re-connection of one such person.
The first 15 minutes of the film move at an excruciatingly slow pace, as we get a feel for Monica’s (Trace Lysette, “Transparent”, HUSTLERS 2019) everyday struggles. It appears there is no joy in her life as relationships unravel, and she attempts to find her way. A phone call notifies of her mother’s deteriorating health due to a brain tumor. The news draws Monica back home for the first time since she left years ago. Greeted with a hug from her sister-in-law Laura (Emily Browning, SUCKER PUNCH 2011), Monica meets her nieces and nephews for the first time. A reunion with brother Paul (Joshua Close) is initially quite awkward. The siblings do get their moment a bit later, although it’s when Monica is by her mother’s side that the film excels.
Patricia Clarkson plays Eugenia, a woman whose brain tumor is wreaking havoc not just on her physical presence, but also her emotions. At times, she’s merely a child calling for her own mother, while at other times, she’s hard-headed and demanding that she can take care of herself … this despite the constant attention from her caregiver, Letta (Adriana Barraza, BABEL 2006). She doesn’t appear to recognize Monica, and a running theme is, “Are you going to tell her?” We feel Monica’s pain as she attempts to find solace in merely being close to her mother, but it’s in the bathtub scene where Clarkson’s incredible talent shines through, and the many webs of deceit and uncertainty reach a conclusion.
Lysette’s performance as Monica captures the vulnerability that allows the film to work. Is she isolated or trapped … or is it both? It’s a role that takes 45 minutes of screen time before she’s allowed a smile, though her Cocteau Twins t-shirt is appreciated. Pallaoro’s approach here is restrained (an understatement), and he gives up backstory hesitantly, and in small doses and hints. No scene is overrun with dialogue. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi uses close-ups effectively to convey the emotional strain and unseen barriers to closeness. The result is a strong family drama on relationships, decisions, acceptance/rejection, and health issues.
Greetings again from the darkness. This completes what I call the triumvirate of female film misery: Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, and now Jennifer Aniston in Cake. Each film focuses on the physical and emotional struggles of a previously strong female character adjusting to life’s cruel obstacles.
Claire (Ms. Aniston) is a former attorney in constant chronic pain who appears to be on a mission to make everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scars on her face make it obvious she has survived some trauma, and it’s also clear that there is an additional emotional loss that is contributing to her situation. However, director Daniel Baraz (Beastly) and writer Patrick Tobin tease us for awhile with exactly what tragedy Claire is working through. Further proof of her lack of charm comes when her support group (led by Felicity Huffman) boots her out after an especially uncaring rant.
Claire takes a bizarre interest in researching the suicide of one of the group’s members (Anna Kendrick). This leads to some uncomfortable interactions with the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and their young son, and even more bizarre interactions – through dreams and hallucinations – with the Kendrick character (yes, the dead one). Claire’s abusive persona comes through in these moments, just as it does with all other people who dare cross her path … especially that of her caregiver Silvana (a wonderful Adriana Barraza, Babel).
Many have used the dreaded “snub” term to describe Aniston not receiving an Oscar nomination. My perspective is that she does a fine job in a role that is stunning in its variance from her typical fluffy rom-com roles. However, it is not a performance that I would favorable compare to Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard or Felicity Jones. To see America’s sweetheart go 90 minutes sans make-up and with unkempt hair is a welcome change, but the script contrivances and the choppiness of the presentation – a stream of big name actors make single scene appearances – do nothing to help the case for Aniston. In fact, I would still rate her work in The Good Girlas her best.
The trend of glam-downed actresses is welcome, though it’s important to remember that a full-bodied script is still necessary for a quality movie. Other than the language, this one felt like it was more in line with a Lifetime movie. However, it does provide hope that Ms. Aniston will devote more time to dramatic roles and indie films.