Grief may be the topic under examination, but humor — incisive, observant and warm — is the tool with which it’s dissected in “Rabbit Hole,” a refreshingly positive-minded take on cinema’s ultimate downer: overcoming the death of a child. Adroitly expanded from the legit hit by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (its original, Pulitzer-winning author) and director John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” fittingly offers a parallel-universe variation on what Broadway auds saw, with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart delivering expert, understated performances as the pic’s central couple. A savvy distrib should have no trouble steering this quality drama through a healthy kudo season release.

Eight months have passed since the accidental death of the Corbetts’ 4-year-old son, Danny, and the New York couple, Howie (Eckhart) and Becca (Kidman), still feel their lives dominated by the loss. Even the pic’s opening gesture, a metaphorical sign of regrowth that finds Becca laboring in her garden, is set back when a well-meaning neighbor tramples one of her freshly planted seedlings — no matter how hard she tries, the healing is hard. Each has a different way of coping: Howie holds on to all that reminds him of Danny, while Becca wants to sell the house and move on.

This is familiar territory, movingly explored countless times before, though “Rabbit Hole” is refreshingly light on the loss itself. With the exception of one unnecessary, agonizing flashback late in the film, everything takes place in the healing space of the present. But instead of moving on as they should, Howie and Becca seem to be shutting down certain parts of themselves (they haven’t had sex since the accident, for example, and Danny’s dog has been sent into exile with Becca’s mother, played by Dianne Wiest). Just as the birth of a child can strengthen certain unstable relationships, a death threatens to permanently come between even the best-matched couple.

With the larger canvas of the screen at his disposal, Lindsay-Abaire deepens several key relationships. An offhand mention of the God-freaks in group therapy becomes a full-blown subplot, as Becca rejects the collective sharing sessions, where participants appear to be competing for some sort of saddest-story prize. (Empathy, as whenever her mother evokes the death of a junkie uncle, inevitably sets Becca on edge.) While Howie continues going to therapy alone, bonding with “professional wallower” Gaby (Sandra Oh, in an effective role created for the film), Becca reaches out to a teenage boy (Miles Teller) whose facial scars seem to explain what the character doesn’t at first.

While Lindsay-Abaire endeavors to open up the action, director Mitchell uses the screen to make the material more intimate, privileging auds with closeups vital to our understanding of the characters. At first, “Rabbit Hole” may seem a radical departure from his more scandalous earlier work (gender-bending rock opera “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and explicit sex drama “Shortbus”); where those films felt transgressive, “Rabbit Hole” is polite, the production itself as neatly manicured as the Corbetts’ Pottery Barn-perfect lives. On closer inspection, what all three projects share is the helmer’s insistence on raw, unsimulated emotion.

In Kidman’s case, it’s nice to see the actress’ lately immovable forehead participating in her performance, with subtle, almost imperceptible fluctuations in her carefully guarded facade allowing us to follow as Becca tumbles down the rabbit hole of her own emotions. Eckhart gets a couple of big shouting scenes, but the actor manages to convey just as much in Howie’s quietly injured moments. A new scene, in which Howie awkwardly attempts to show prospective homebuyers Danny’s room, perfectly balances melancholy and humor, while seemingly mundane details — struggling to use an iPhone, checking on a cake in the backseat — ground the characters in reality.

“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be,” Lindsay-Abaire advised potential theater directors in the author’s note to his play. Mitchell, whose own career began onstage, respects the writer’s wishes, and with the exception of the aforementioned flashback, he shrewdly keeps the mood tipped toward the positive. Anton Sanko’s Arvo Part-esque score, all introspective pianos and strings, encourages us to feel without forcing a reaction, while fleeting progression shots of a comicbook in progress enrich the payoff of the play’s self-defining scene.

Rabbit Hole

  • Production: An Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films, OddLot Entertainment production. (International sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gigi Pritzker, Nicole Kidman, Per Saari, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech. Executive producers, William Lischak, Linda McDonough, Brian O'Shea, Dan Revers. Co-producer, Geoff Linville, Caroline Jaczko. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Screenplay, David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Frank G. DeMarco; editor, Joe Klotz; music, Anton Sanko; music supervisor, Robin Urdang; production designer, Kalina Ivanov; art director, Ola Maslik; set decorator, Diana Salzburg; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound (Dolby Digital), Jan McLaughlin; supervising sound editor, Ben Cheah; re-recording mixer, Ron Bochar; stunt coordinator, Doug Crosby; associate producer, Gemma O'Neil; casting, Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 13, 2010. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: Becca - Nicole Kidman Howie - Aaron Eckhart Nat - Dianne Wiest Jason - Miles Teller Izzy - Tammy Blanchard Gaby - Sandra Oh Auggie - Giancarlo Esposito Rick - Jon Tenney