What does it say about the current state of American cinema that filmmaker Patrick Wang’s brand of humanism could be considered radical? Most of our homegrown dramatists aren’t interested in the complexities of inner tumult, just the surface level conflict and pain it tends to foster. Making matters worse, the Academy Awards don’t tend to reward serious artists dealing with the nuances of psychological distress. Wang is different from his peers in so many respects, but the most important has to do with his refusal to see human emotion through such a binary lens; for him, trauma and healing are permanently intertwined and mirrored experiences.
With this motif as their guiding light, Wang’s first two features—2011’s In the Family and 2015’s The Grief of Others—daringly suggest that even the most traumatically broken individual can heal under the right circumstances. His invaluable optimism does not fall into the Hallmark greeting card category; quite the opposite in fact. These films understand how and why hope remains contingent on the frank realities of melancholy and prolonged suffering. One inevitably bleeds into the other.
In today’s world, relentless news cycles and social media engagement help define our superficial relationships with other people. Wang’s films sidestep technology and politics almost entirely. He’s interested in the ways people communicate through various forms of emotional and artistic expression. If In the Family utilizes cinematic duration, extended dialogue sequences, long pauses, and performances rooted in the former, The Grief of Others creates a disjointed and experimental rumination on forgiveness using the latter.
Based on Leah Hager Cohen’s book of the same name, The Grief of Others is a quiet bruiser about repressed anger, silence, and ultimately forgiveness. It depicts complex domestic crisis in a non-linear, almost magical way with aesthetic fractures that expand the possibilities of the frame and deepen over time. Shot in grainy Super 16mm film stock and featuring dynamic editing choices that rival Nicolas Roeg’s greatest work, the film operates outside the realm of mainstream convention, looking and sounding unlike any other modern melodrama.
On paper, the story of an unassuming suburban upstate New York family rotting from the inside out doesn’t sound all that unique. But Wang infuses it with the malleability of a poem. Each scene features an element of spontaneity, as if any moment could lead these characters in an entirely new direction. And still, Wang contrasts this theme with the bristling reality that his characters’ familial relationships are entering the early stages of rigor mortis thanks to a collective suppression of pain.
John Ryrie (Trevor St. John) teaches art at what looks like a community college, while his wife Ricky (Wendy Moniz) works 9-5 in a corporate setting. Their two children—pubescent tween Paul (Jeremy Shinder) and precious grade-schooler Biscuit (Oona Laurence)—both caught in confusing stages of adolescence and acting out in different ways. Each character experiences a sudden earthquake of possibility upon the arrival of Jess (Sonya Harum), John’s daughter from a previous marriage who is pregnant and looking for a place to convalesce.
Pink hues tint the low angle opening shot in a POV later revealed to be the first images seen by Ricky’s critically ill newborn. The baby’s innocent eyes only see the world for a moment, but it’s a peaceful existence despite being set to the rhythm of an EKG machine. Like watercolors dissolving into thin air, the shot slowly melts away. Chaotic movement follows immediately after with a close up of pavement swooshing by as someone rides their bike furiously down the road.
The cyclist turns out to be Biscuit. She arrives at the banks of the Hudson River and begins to perform some ritual off-screen until a runaway dog knocks her into the water. Gordie (Mike Faist), the canine’s twenty-something owner, rushes to her aid, and their accidental meeting touches off a series of pivotal interactions between family members, friends, and acquaintances that build into delicately constructed dialogue sequences where so much is left unsaid.
John and Ricky’s infectious unhappiness can be traced back to a single secret. After learning that her unborn child has developed a rare birth defect that will cause almost immediate death, Ricky decides to carry to term anyway. She lies to John until the very last moment, which devastates him (and the children) immensely. Wang reveals this betrayal at the end of the first act in a stunning extended flashback conjured by a time traveling jump cut.
Unabashedly singular, the film freely experiments with shifting perspectives and temporality. One moment Ricky molds the film’s pacing around her own regrets, and the next it can be taken over by a supporting character like Gordie, who remembers past conversations through voice over flashbacks while archiving his deceased father’s diorama collection. Such jumps in point-of-view feed into the film’s subversion of typical genre tropes. Jess even describes her own situation in the same anti-sentimental way: “This isn’t a coming of age story.”
Wang bravely co-opts literary devices for the big screen, namely the internal voices of characters, to reshape what’s visually and audibly possible in any given cinematic moment. While his gentle touch with actors reminds of a kinder Kenneth Lonergan, the tonal ambition on display in The Grief of Others is completely singular. The final shot proves why: Wang frames the family’s dining room as they prepare to symbolically bury the deceased child that for so long no one has mentioned. After they exit, a vignette of the actual ceremony bleeds into the frame, juxtaposing one mundane space with a profoundly moving one, showing how the two experiences are woven psychologically together.
The Grief of Others finally receives a New York City theatrical release on November 2, over three years after it’s world premiere in the ACID sidebar at Cannes. Initially unveiled long before 2016’s toxic presidential election, the film’s capacity for empathy, its patient demeanor and avant-garde flourishes almost seem alien in nature, representative of a time devoid of malice. Without denouncing the raw pain of everyday life, Wang sees so much love in his characters, and amazingly, the world at large. We desperately need his cinema now more than ever, and luckily audiences can already see his next feature, the diptych A Bread Factory that was released on October 26.