In his director’s statement, first-time helmer Blake Robbins speaks eloquently of his desire to privilege “the moment” and to let nothing interfere with the primacy of the actors’ performances, nixing clapboards, calls of “cut” and lighting setups. That’s all very fine, except that in “The Sublime and Beautiful,” the only actor profiting from such largesse is Robbins himself, foregrounded in every scene as a college professor who loses all three of his children to a drunk driver and prowls around in tight-lipped grief thereafter. Empathetic viewers may infer volumes from Robbins’ dazed interiority, but most audiences (and distribs) will likely pass.
Coming late to the lamentation-filled dead-children genre that flourished in Hollywood some years back, Robbins brings nothing new to the table, relying on his thesping and viewers’ identification to fill in the script’s gaping blanks. Brief scenes establish the matter-of-factly affectionate relations among teacher David Conrad (Robbins), wife Kelly (Laura Kirk) and their three kids (played by Robbins’ own offspring).
The camera then follows Conrad on his non-classroom professorial rounds — shooting hoops with colleague/best bud, Mike (Matthew Del Negro), turning down sexual favors offered in lieu of homework assignments, and meeting his lover/teaching assistant (Anastasia Baranova) in a coffee bar where she throatily croons. Meanwhile, offscreen, Robbins’ wife is wounded and his three children are killed returning from a Christmas tree-trimming trip to his parents’ house — an excursion from which he excused himself in order to philander.
Though it’s made clear that husband and wife are equally devastated by the loss, alienated from each other during mute meals and in separate guilty mourning spaces, the camera rarely leaves Robbins, the rest of the cast merely supplying well-acted raw material for his slow-burning, minutely observed reactions. The one time he relinquishes centerstage — for Kirk’s show-stopping, semi-hysterical rejection of the hugs, platitudes and whispered commiserations from people she barely knows at a university Christmas party — it pays off big-time, suddenly revealing an alternate perspective. But helmer Robbins never repeats the experiment.
Instead, viewers are treated to a lone Robbins sitting in an empty church or roaming the Kansas countryside, his brooding walks broken by memory-triggered flashbacks of his kids at play. Wallowing in a silent stew of guilt, grief and vengeful anger, he spends hours watching the house where his children’s DUI killer resides. He loads a sawed-off shotgun, whether for the purpose of murder or suicide as yet unclear, and begins to drink more heavily, further thickening the moral morass into which he has sunk.
Robbins’ acting sounds no false notes, but the unbroken monotony of the proceedings, while arguably realistic, makes for heavy sledding cinematically. Lyn Moncrief’s lensing, though frequently underlit due to the helmer’s insistence on source light, carries the mood all too faithfully in this glumly one-note downer. The director, who cites Inarritu’s “21 Grams” and Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” as influences, might have done well to channel their multiple-viewpoint approaches.