Writer-director Patrick Wang’s 2011 debut “In the Family” was a sprawling, astute look at a southern gay man coping with his partner’s sudden death and attempting to care for his young child. Its measured approach and extensive running time limited its commercial appeal, but over the course of many months and the accumulation of critical acclaim, the movie became a definite sleeper hit. For his follow-up, “The Grief of Others,” Wang adapts Leah Hager Cohen’s 2011 novel into another quietly engaging look at family bonds troubled by unexpected death. While not as uniformly engaging as Wang’s debut, the new movie once again showcases the filmmaker’s tender, exacting technique, offering further confirmation of his emerging talent.
Wang’s latest drama focuses on the turmoil facing the Ryries family in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. Married couple Ricky (Wendy Moniz) and John (Trevor St. John) cope with death of their infant child, who was born without a brain and lived only a few hours. With the revelation that Ricky learned about the baby’s condition for his birth and neglected to tell John, their troubled relationship is further exacerbated. Meanwhile, their chubby adolescent son Paul (Jeremy Shinder) copes with school bullies and his younger sister Biscuit (Oona Laurence) remains largely clueless. Into this melancholic environment arrives introverted twentysomething Jessica (Sonya Harum) — John’s daughter from an earlier relationship — who has run away from home while harboring an accidental pregnancy of her own. Bumming around town, she forms a curious bond with Gordie (Mike Faist), a young man tormented by his father’s recent death and still living in the dead man’s home.
The pileup of dramatic circumstances, explored with a cooly disconnected tone, often clash with the melodramatic nature of the material. Though Wang’s script is littered with brooding monologues, many scenes feature a stilted, theatrical quality further hampered by uneven performances. Yet there’s no doubting the intelligent texture that Wang brings to the narrative as a whole, which drifts from one soft-spoken exchange to the next with a meditative quality that foregrounds the themes of anguish and renewal embedded in the work. At once literary and gently cinematic, “The Grief of Others” develops a haunting atmosphere that builds to a satisfying conclusion.
As the title implies, each character attempts to escape their grief by exploring its parallels around them. While John barrels down on his wife for hiding their late child’s condition (and develops a nasty drinking habit in the process), she takes an interest in helping Jessica through her situation, while Jessica in turn develops a curious investment in Gordie’s solitary existence. These individual threads hover around each other without ever merging into a satisfactory whole, but it’s that same disconnected quality that stabilizes “The Grief of Others” as it probes the mysterious, ineffable qualities fueling human behavior during tough times.
Despite its occasional rough patches, Wang’s slow-burn approach offers plenty of perceptive, beautifully rendered moments. The director’s near-experimental penchant for framing various exchanges with long, static takes allows for a sense of stillness to dominate many scenes, which makes the punctuation of sudden anger and frustration stand out. The style is especially potent during a remarkable overlay in the closing shot, which contrasts the family’s vacant home with an outdoor memorial service, suggesting a fresh beginning that has subsumed the empty shell of the past. Such moments convey the ineffable nature of struggling to move forward in the midst of bad vibes. Despite its downer of a premise, “The Grief of Others” ultimately finds its way to an uplifting conclusion, proving no matter the uncertainties plaguing his characters, Wang knows exactly what he’s doing with this dour material.
“The Grief of Others” premiered last weekend at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.