Death is taken for granted way too often in movies. If someone could measure the average time spent on a character death in a modern Hollywood film, we’d wager it would be less than five minutes and even that feels generous. Actor and producer Andrew Levitas’ debut as a director goes a long way into correcting that by setting his story at death’s door and placing the viewer in the personal center of it. But Levitas isn’t only concerned with the emotional struggles a small family unit goes through when one of them is terminally ill. The ethical question raised by a patient’s right to die is a very testy subject in the United States, with only four states recognizing it legally, and Lullaby is a film very much about the pros and cons of this debate. Balancing the intimate with the political proves to be a tough ask for Levitas and his skills as a screenwriter, but this is the kind of film where the performances dictate its success and reach, and the marquee cast shows you what kind of talent is brought together. Heavy dramatics supported by some fantastic turns make “Lullaby” just the kind of hard watch it needs to be.
Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) is coming back home from California because of a family emergency. His father Robert (Richard Jenkins) has been battling cancer for the past 12 years and has made the decision to stop the treatment, be taken off the machinery, and welcome the inevitable. As his wife of 30-plus years, Rachel (Anne Archer) has been with Robert every step of the way and rarely leaves his bedside, only wishing the best for her husband. When Jon finds out about his dad’s decision, he takes it in the typical “so you’re just going to quit” fashion and acts out until he meets Meredith (Jessica Barden), a 17-year-old patient in the hospital who has bone-marrow cancer, and who gives him a different perspective on his dad’s brave decision. He reluctantly agrees to be witness when his dad makes the official statement. But when Jon’s sister Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay) joins them, she refuses to accept this decision and says that she filed an injunction preventing any form of assisted suicide. The family spends the night arguing over this decision and coming to terms with certain realities, all the while finding ways to comfort a dying man.
You’ll be hearing more and more about Jessica Brown Findlay, who’s made her name on the supremely successful TV period drama “Downton Abbey” and is on the cusp of entering Hollywood big leagues with next year’s “Frankenstein.” As the one who has her shit together, Findlay’s level-headed lawyer-sister is the antithesis to Hedlund’s emotionally lost artist-brother. That is, up until her final big moment when Findlay knocks it out of the park and you realize her facade isn’t just hiding a questionable taste in men. Then there’s Anne Archer, who you’ll instantly recognize even if her name might not roll off the tongue because you probably remember her from her Oscar-nominated role in “Fatal Attraction” or Sweet Dee and Dennis’ hilarious whoring mom from TV’s “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” depending on how old you are. Here she plays both wife and mother (minus the hysteria and whoring, thankfully) with rarely a dry eye in any given scene but an outpouring of vulnerability and love for her family that’s impossible not to move you. And before we get to the guys, special shout out must go out to Jessica Barden, who breathes life into the lovable way-too-young-to-have-cancer Meredith, a character engineered to tug the heart strings and only resonating thanks to Barden’s charming performance.
While those ladies brought their A games, Hedlund and Jenkins take centre stage because of the perspective Levitas has on the story. It’s been four years since Garrett Hedlund emerged into Hollywood consciousness in “TRON: Legacy” and he’s been righting all the wrongs from that horrid performance ever since. In many ways “Lullaby” is his first truly lead performance (sorry, but Jeff Bridges steals everything in ‘TRON)’ and he carries the film’s most profound message with a few wobbles along the way. The flat lines don’t help his delivery, which is downright hackneyed on more than one occasion, but he brings it and then some for the most emotionally complex scenes, which is this picture’s bread and butter. Richard Jenkins, on the opposite end of the experience spectrum, proves how criminally underused he is as he acts circles around an entire room of talent while never getting out of bed. He’s a character actor who can blend into all sorts of situations seamlessly in the background, but roles like this are examples of why he needs to be in the foreground more often.
Terrence Howard’s caring doctor, Jennifer Hudson’s no-nonsense nurse, and Amy Adams’ ex-girlfriend are cardboard roles that are easily replaceable. Except perhaps Adams, whose character is written so sloppily that anyone else would have mishandled those scenes while Adams saves them just by her inability to be bad in anything. While the performances are the key to the success of “Lullaby,” it is Levitas’ heartfelt and personal story (his inspiration for writing it came from his own family experience) that provides the necessary tools for these actors to work with.
As a director, he gets his feet wet with some technique (an effective 180 camera pan, some fly-on-the-wall angles, Jon’s emotionally hungover POV) which don’t amount to anything deeper than a first-time filmmaker’s experimentation. As a writer, there’s a lack of balance which makes the messages heavy-handed and more than a few instances of emotional engineering too hard to swallow. But there is something very courageous in tackling the theme of death as your first feature, and Levitas succeeds in showing the important part death plays in the theatre of life. You’ll walk away feeling sombre and slightly downtrodden but, thanks to a handful of strong performances and a strong emotional core, the central debate will linger in your mind, which is exactly what “Lullaby” sets out to do. [B]