If writer-director Patrick Wang hadn’t already made a fine, little-seen drama a few years ago called “In the Family,” the title would have been just as well suited to his sophomore feature, “The Grief of Others,” a delicate, elliptically structured portrait of six wounded souls coping with the aftermath of tragedy. More experimental in form and wobbly in execution than its predecessor, this searching adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s 2011 novel nonetheless evokes a family’s fragile inner life in ineffably moving fashion, capturing how distant and isolated parents and children can feel from one another even when living under the same roof. Commercial prospects are as modest as the work itself, but festivals will line up to pay their respects.
It takes a while for the viewer to grasp the significance of the dreamlike prologue, tinted with red and seemingly shot from the perspective of a hospital patient hovering at the edge of consciousness. Wang works his way in from the outside in, gradually immersing us in a series of minor crises affecting the Ryries, who live in the small village of Nyack, N.Y. The youngest, 10-year-old Biscuit (Oona Laurence), has turned mopey and unpredictable, cutting school to hang out by herself along the Hudson River. Her smart, sarcastic 13-year-old brother, Paul (Jeremy Shinder), is somewhat overweight and mercilessly picked on at school. And their parents, John (Trevor St. John, “In the Family”) and Ricky (Wendy Moniz), seem mildly tetchy and disconnected of late, owing to their busy work schedules, strapped finances and struggles with the kids — but also, perhaps, to something more.
As in Cohen’s novel, the dramatic catalyst here is the arrival of Jessica (Sonya Harum), John’s teenage daughter from a previous relationship. Estranged from her mother and pregnant, Jessica accepts Ricky’s sincere invitation to stay with them until after her baby is born. She’s a considerate houseguest and gets along well with her hosts, but her presence can’t help but remind John and Ricky of their own recent trauma — having a baby who was born with a rare medical condition and died mere days after his birth.
The details of this painful chapter are revealed in an extended flashback triggered, with sly offhandedness, when John enters the house one night and finds himself in the space where he and Ricky had one of many arguments — an unusual but intuitive decision that suggests our thoughts, emotions and memories are inevitably bound up in the very places where they’re forged. There is a sense in which “The Grief of Others” is being told entirely from the ghostly perspective of the Ryries’ departed son, hovering benevolently over each family member in turn and observing their quiet ways of coping. Whether accurate or not, that interpretation would account not only for the precise moment at which the movie ends, but also for the meandering, loosely structured quality of the narrative, which seems more inclined to linger on its own melancholy than to whisk us along in the most elegant or expedient manner.
In keeping with his source material, Wang seems naturally allergic to melodrama or overstatement, and the troubles and misunderstandings plaguing the Ryrie household, while not exactly minor, are far from irreconcilable. Ricky, the breadwinner, tends to put her work over family time and often makes decisions without consulting her husband; John, for his part, would gladly settle for a simpler lifestyle if it meant his wife were more physically and emotionally present. What the film ultimately offers is a wise, sensible plea for forgiveness, understanding and healing through deeper communication — primarily between husband and wife, but also between parents and children, especially Jessica, whose pregnancy will soon pose physical and emotional complications of its own. Before that point, she becomes friendly with the Ryries’ neighbor Gordie (Mike Faist), a young man who’s dealing with his own grief, having recently lost his father.
Wang has elided a fair amount of the material in Cohen’s novel (with the author’s blessing), paring away a few dramatic subplots — including the matter of a past indiscretion which is referred to briefly here, then never mentioned again. The result is a more jagged and elusive piece of storytelling than “In the Family,” a nearly three-hour drama that proceeded in relatively straightforward fashion, but like that film it also shows remarkable, almost subliminal powers of observation. Shooting on Super 16mm film, Wang and d.p. Frank Barrera favor the sort of patient, carefully framed, naturally lit long takes that allow us to see the characters in relation to their environment as well as each other — a visual approach that bespeaks a principled refusal to favor any individual’s perspective over another’s.
St. John and Moniz give the strongest performances here, in part because the drama hinges primarily on their conflict, but also because they seem more assured acting in the desired humdrum, naturalistic register than their younger co-stars. And while it has its share of modest cinematic flourishes — the abrupt dissolves between present to past, a luminous frame-within-a-frame effect that provides the film with its stirring resolution — “The Grief of Others” ultimately feels no less influenced by Wang’s background as a theater director, right down to his tableau-like conception of every scene. It’s perhaps no coincidence that John designs sets for a local community theater, or that a subplot involves the fate of a collection of hand-crafted dioramas, which are singled out by a potential buyer at one point for their “lack of commercial ambition.” In this modest, restrained yet affecting family portrait, it’s no surprise that those words are intended as a compliment.