×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Tender’

A compassionate, gently funny look at life and mortality through the prism of an Australian local government.

With:
Jenny Briscoe-Hough, Sheryl Wiffen, Misty Gurtala, Adrianne Talbot-Thompson, Tina Howard, Nigel Slater, Christine Okoniowski.

Possibly the cheekiest and most life-affirming documentary on the concept of death and dying since Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven,” “Tender” is a valentine to the can-do spirit of Australians in general and local governments, known as councils, in particular. Artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth’s nonfiction debut is a compassionate and often gently funny tale of one such council determined to go into the not-for-profit funeral business, only to be challenged by the terminal cancer diagnosis of one of its own. Recent winner of the TV documentary prize at the Australian Academy of Cinema, Television Arts awards, the film is being distributed Stateside by Documentary Educational Resources and will make a fine addition to any cabler’s library.

“We won’t be keeping bodies at the community center,” someone explains helpfully during an informational meeting of the council in Port Kembla, the seaside industrial town in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. A genial and obviously close-knit, mostly female board that tends to conduct business over tea and pastries, they’re concerned with the high cost and impersonal nature of traditional funeral homes, and just honestly want to help.

To this end, they organize the Community Funerals Steering Committee and begin their research. Tempered by irreverent one-liners and palpable community spirit, the council also explores the more philosophical issues of the funeral and burial process, such as discussing death in advance and the benefits of keeping the body at home to grieve properly. They’re watched over by Bailey the dog, whose owner, Andrew, is part of a volunteer men’s group at the center. In the midst of this, they discover their beloved volunteer caretake, Nigel Slater, is dying of cancer. This naturally impacts the process, with project spark plug and manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough (a childhood friend of Wallworth’s) struggling to talk with Slater about his impending death and wishes.

There are no interviews with officials in the undertaking industry, because that’s not really what “Tender” is about. Wallworth has primarily been known until now as an artist whose immersive installations harness cutting-edge interactive technologies, and some of the themes she’s pursued involve mortality, the connection between people and the natural world, grief and loss. The film is a logical extension of those concerns, made all the more poignant when Slater’s cancer was diagnosed a fortnight before the 10-week shoot that yielded some 80 hours of footage. In the end, “Tender” is as much about a hands-on, caring Australian community as it is about end-of-life issues, with Wallworth’s keen eye and respectful approach making for an emotional journey.

Tech credits are fine, with Simon Morris’ digital camera dwelling pensively on personal details of these dedicated, caring people. Music completists should note the original score from rocker Nick Cave and his regular collaborator Warren Ellis. As an inspiring coda not presented in the film, as of December 2014, the nonprofit Tender Funerals was expected to set up shop in an old Port Kembla fire station.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Tender'

Reviewed online, Sydney, Jan. 2, 2015. (Also in 2014 Sydney, London film festivals; 2013 Adelaide Film Festival.) Running time: 73 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Australia) A Ronin Films (in Australia)/Documentary Educational Resources (in U.S.) release of a Scarlett Pictures production, in association with the Adelaide Film Festival, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the Australia Council for the Arts, Screen NSW and Screen Australia’s Enterprise Program. Produced by Kath Shelper.

Crew: Directed, written by Lynette Wallworth. Camera (color, HD), Simon Morris; editor, Karryn de Cinque; music, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; music supervisor, Kim Green; sound, Sam Hayward; sound designer, Liam Egan.

With: Jenny Briscoe-Hough, Sheryl Wiffen, Misty Gurtala, Adrianne Talbot-Thompson, Tina Howard, Nigel Slater, Christine Okoniowski.

More Film

  • Jason Lei Howden, Samara Weaving and

    Daniel Radcliffe On Acting With Weapons Nailed To Your Hands

    How did “Guns Akimbo” director and writer Jason Lei Howden convince Daniel Radcliffe to play a character with guns nailed to his hands? Easy, he sent him the script. Radcliffe joined Howden and “Ready or Not’s” breakout star Samara Weaving in the Variety’s Toronto Film Festival studio, presented by AT&T to talk the limits of [...]

  • Box Office: It Chapter Two Maintains

    Box Office: 'It: Chapter Two' Continues International Reign With $47 Million

    Pennywise’s reign of terror hasn’t wavered: Warner Bros.’ “It Chapter Two” maintained first place on box office charts, led by another strong showing overseas. The sequel, based on Stephen King’s horror novel, generated another $47 million at the international box office for a foreign tally of $169 million. After two weeks of release, “It Chapter [...]

  • First still from the set of

    Taika Waititi’s 'Jojo Rabbit' Wins Top Prize at Toronto Film Festival Awards

    Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” has won the coveted People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The honor positions the film for a potential Oscar run and bolsters its awards chances. That’s good news for Fox Searchlight, which must have been disappointed by the lackluster critical reception for the movie, a dark comedy [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content