An attempt to reckon honestly with a family tragedy and its complex emotional aftermath largely sustains viewer goodwill throughout “Louder Than Words,” the fictionalized true story of how a Westchester, N.Y., couple worked to establish a local children’s hospital in the name and memory of their young daughter, Maria Fareri, after her untimely death from rabies in 1995. Anchored by intelligently restrained performances from David Duchovny and especially Hope Davis as the grieving parents, this well-meaning and reasonably well-handled item retains an emotional sincerity despite its occasionally pat and overly sentimental stretches, ensuring that a good portion of its climactic uplift feels well earned. The pic opened theatrically Aug. 1, following a July 1 VOD/iTunes release that will likely account for most of its modest commercial returns.
Benjamin Chapin’s screenplay is structured around the voiceover of Maria (Olivia Steele Falconer), a sweet, curly-haired 13-year-old and straight-A student, as well as the self-professed glue holding together her loving but sometimes fractious family: her parents, John (Duchovny) and Brenda (Davis), and her older siblings, triplets Julie (Morgan Griffin), Stephanie (Adelaide Kane) and Michael (Ben Rosenfield). Everyone gets along, for the most part, though Steph and Brenda tend to get on each other’s nerves, and John, a real-estate developer and a polarizing figure in their upscale community, is often distracted and emotionally distant.
Their relationships are even more severely tested after Maria, suffering mysterious aches and other symptoms, is rushed to the hospital, where a doctor grimly confirms the worst: Due to a small and previously undetected animal bite, she has contracted rabies and will become one of the very few people in America each year who still die from the disease. And so it becomes clear that Maria is, in fact, sharing her story from beyond the grave, her narration interlaced with flashbacks to happier times that pull the story between acute grief and bittersweet remembrance.
These memories continue to haunt the Fareris as they go about the difficult task of carrying on without the youngest, cheeriest member of their family. One of the last thoughts she expressed in her diary was a wish for the well-being of all children, which eventually spurs John to channel his talents and resources into the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital — a vital addition to the overcrowded Westchester Medical Center, and also assurance that tragedy won’t have the final say on his daughter’s legacy.
Serviceably directed by Anthony Fabian, “Louder Than Words” doesn’t entirely steer clear of the pitfalls that often come with this sort of inspirational heart-tugger territory. There are perhaps one too many shots of autumn leaves falling in slow motion (with tinkling accompaniment by composer Geoff Zanelli), and while Falconer’s performance mercifully never becomes too cloying, you do wonder if the character of Maria has been a tad sanctified beyond the usual terrific-kid parameters. It’s a problem of which the script itself seems partly aware, which may explain a flashback in which Maria is heard casually dropping an F-bomb in front of her parents, who react with surprising equanimity.
To its credit, however, the picture proves admirably attentive to the fact that grief hits different people differently, and to the subtle ways in which it inevitably throws a family off-balance. Death may temporarily bring everyone together, but it won’t keep them there; Brenda remains on uneasy terms with Steph, and the other two triplets soon head off to college, adding emotional and geographic distance. Despite one ill-advised scene of crockery-smashing histrionics, the film understands that the process of mourning often plays out quietly and gradually, in the spaces and silences of everyday life, and has a pesky habit of resurfacing just when it seems that normalcy has begun to reclaim hold.
The hospital project, for all the compassionate thoughts and feelings it engenders in the community, itself kicks off a long, frustratingly drawn-out cycle of fundraising and political wrangling, and perhaps the film’s most honest insight is that this grand and generous accomplishment will ultimately provide a balm for, but no escape from, the family’s grief. Timothy Hutton brings welcome warmth to the pivotal role of John’s trusty but sometimes overburdened right-hand man, whose support for the Fareris forces him to wear any number of unfamiliar hats, from fundraiser to grief counselor.
Although its sympathies are evenly distributed across the board, “Louder Than Words” ultimately becomes a focused portrait of how a marriage can survive the unimaginable. The dynamic between the bereaved parents is a familiar one, and dramatically a bit on-the-nose: He withdraws into himself and becomes neglectful, she goes into a cleaning frenzy and tries her best to maintain an outward show of strength. But the actors hit their notes beautifully and bring out the best in their less experienced younger co-stars. Duchovny’s reserve as a performer works well for his character’s aloofness, while Davis is entirely believable and moving as a supportive wife and mother working overtime to keep her family together.
Tech credits are unobtrusively polished, from d.p. Elliot Davis’ well-framed compositions and editor Melissa Kent’s fluid, time-skipping cutting to production designer Franckie Diago’s persuasive rendering of Westchester affluence.