The winner of the narrative jury prize at the Slamdance Film Festival, Elliot Greenebaum’s “Assisted Living” is an affecting low-key drama set and shot in a functioning nursing home. Recalling David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” in its minimalist approach, use of nonprofessionals and disposition toward long, meditative scenes, pic is a bit too taken with lackadaisical pacing, feeling much longer than its brief running time. Still, this is a noteworthy piece on a difficult subject — society’s complex relationship with the elderly and infirm — that will connect with audiences tired of Hollywood’s sentimental portrayals of growing old. With strong critical and distrib backing, pic could perform modestly well in specialized release, though its highly intimate sensibility may translate even better to the small screen.
“Assisted Living” will also draw inevitable comparison to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” except that in this case, the spirited nonconformist with the devil-may-care sensibility isn’t one of the patients, but one of the staff — a pot-smoking slacker nurse named Todd (Michael Bonsignore), who constantly shows up to work late, takes patients on unauthorized outings and, when he’s really bored, makes prank phone calls to patients in which he pretends to be a dearly departed relative calling from heaven.
When Todd is charged with looking after longtime resident Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley), he finds himself falling into an odd, mother-son role-playing game, in which the woman, who has Alzheimer’s, increasingly mistakes Todd for her own son, supposedly coming to visit her soon from his home in Australia. Despite efforts to remain emotionally distanced from Mrs. Pearlman — just as his supervisors instruct him to — Todd finds himself an ever-more willing participant in these delusional episodes.
Greenebaum’s film is unafraid to show age and deterioration in ways you rarely see in American movies; it lingers lovingly on wrinkles, gray hairs, liver spots and gnarled, arthritic hands, finding a strange kind of beauty therein. Its European sensibility recalls that of Jean-Pierre Ameris’ superb 2001 nursing-home drama, “C’est La Vie.” Likewise, there’s little conventional about the way the relationship between Todd and Mrs. Pearlman plays out. Initially, Todd is drawn to this woman as much out of curiosity as compassion, and rather than manufacturing maudlin effects, Greenebaum uses the two characters as archetypes, juxtaposing the energy of youth against the sedation of old age, with no middle ground.
Greenebaum’s tableau-like direction, while refreshingly unflashy, leads to scenes that drone on well past having made their point.
What gives “Assisted Living” its unexpected weight is the spectacular turn by Riley, a former circus performer. From an early scene in which her character stares longingly into a make-up mirror, as though if she looks long enough she might see her youthful visage, Riley’s depth of understanding for the role brings the pic much-needed emotional resonance. In her hands, Mrs. Pearlman isn’t some cartoonish, Hollywood caricature of a proud old lady, but rather a sad, dignified woman who realizes her mind and body are betraying her and wants to make the most of the time she has left (and not, thankfully, “making the most” of it on some impromptu road-trip or other improbable only-in-the-movies adventure).
In keeping with pic’s overall aesthetic, tech contributions are assured but subdued.