Finally! An independent film about grief with a sense of humor! And an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play that isn’t just a bunch of talking-head monologues! The gods have finally smiled upon not just me but moviegoers in general.
Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as, respectively, Becca and Howie, a married couple trying to overcome the supreme challenge of making their marriage work in the wake of true tragedy. Eight months ago, their four-year-old son was struck and killed by a teen driver, who swerved to avoid the dog the son chased into the street. They attend a grief support group that neither is enthusiastic about, which causes Becca to lash out at “the god-freaks” before abandoning the group altogether.
Becca feels like she’s wallowing in her son’s death. She chose to be a stay-at-home mom and isn’t emotionally ready to return to work. (In one devastating scene, she returns to her old stomping grounds at Sotheby’s, only to learn that everybody she worked with has left the company and the former gofer is in her old boss’s position.) As such, she has nothing to do all day but look at a house full of memories. Howie accuses her of trying to erase their son’s existence, while Becca complains that his workplace provides an escape from the pain she has to suffer all day long.
I know this subject matter sounds particularly dour, but it’s not. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his play for the screen, has a flair for screwball banter. Ultimately, it’s a drama, and Lindsay-Abaire is not afraid of digging into the sorrow felt by both Becca and Howie, but he does so with a light touch and a sense of the absurd. Among other things, Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest, who needs more roles like this) drunkenly rambling about the Kennedys (“They’d all still be alive if they lived like normal people!”) during a painfully awkward bowling-alley birthday party demonstrates his skill at mining comedy from dark circumstances. The script is rife with funny moments and odd asides, but Lindsay-Abaire never undermines the drama.
Early in the film, Becca complains that another couple at their grief support group are “professional wallowers.” Too often, films tackling subjects of grief and loss would focus on that couple—the professional wallowers—instead of a pair who are deeply hurting but have a sense of humor and understanding. When grief threatens to consume Becca and Howie, they refuse to let it. It’s a refreshing change of pace that’s more reflective of the human spirit than more histrionic films of this ilk.
This is thanks, at least in part, to director John Cameron Mitchell’s sensitive handling of the material. Mitchell is a director not known for subtlety, but here he gets absolutely every moment right in a challenging script that’s more about nuance than grand gesture.
I don’t want to divulge much of the plot, because part of the pleasure of watching the film is its surprises. I will say that the way the relationships develop and deepen throughout feels more genuine and affecting than the majority of the films I’ve seen this year. Lindsay-Abaire has created wonderful, vivid characters and planted them in a story that’s more about them learning from and about one another than any grand, convoluted plot. They’re well-acted across the board, particularly by the leads (and I’m not ordinarily a fan of Kidman, but her work here is great).
Rabbit Hole runs the emotional gamut and had me feeling better about life by the end instead of worse. That’s probably the best thing I can say about any film, so take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. If it’s playing in your area, go see it immediately. Forget about Little Fockers.