Naming a film after a famous song can be mildly distracting: As much as we’re swept up in the action at hand, a small part of our brains keeps semi-patiently waiting for the tune to turn up. In “The Parting Glass,” Stephen Moyer’s modest but rather lovely directorial debut, you wait for the eponymous Irish folk song to kick in toward the end, as befits its gorgeous, farewell-themed lyrics, and so it does — used in pretty much the exact way one might have expected, but no less stirring and satisfying for that. That’s an outcome typical of this finely wrought, deeply felt family drama, in which a fractious Irish-American clan of adult siblings gathers to mourn their recently deceased kid sister: Written with great humor and humanity by actor Denis O’Hare — who also takes a key role in a classy ensemble that includes Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon, Anna Paquin, Ed Asner and Rhys Ifans — “The Parting Glass” breaks no new ground narratively or stylistically, but hits its emotional marks with rewarding precision.
Indeed, it’s the kind of film that unfolds with the warm, deliberate intimacy of a good play, which is not to call it stagey: “The Parting Glass” depends vividly on its various down-at-heel, frostbitten Missouri locations for its cumulative impact, as tempers fray in tune with their unsympathetic surrounds. O’Hare, himself a Kansas City son, has evidently written a degree of autobiography into his first feature screenplay, which revolves around a family structured similarly to his own; Englishman Moyer, O’Hare’s co-star on HBO’s “True Blood,” directs his words with attentive but unimposing restraint. With Paquin, Moyer’s wife, co-producer and fellow “True Blood” alum, also on board, “The Parting Glass” serves as something of a reunion for the defunct vampire show — an improbable extra selling point, though the film should find boutique distribution on its own gentle merits.
“It’s hard being an outsider in this family,” complains Karl (Rhys Ifans), the doleful estranged husband of Colleen (Paquin), an unsettled, unhappy young woman who, as the film begins, has recently died in tragic, uncertain circumstances. He’s not wrong: Whether loving or fighting, Ally (Leo), Mare (Nixon) and Dan (O’Hare) have the kind of bond, tangled up in shared history and storytelling, that takes some time to understand. Sitting with them and their crotchety but feeling-riven father (Asner) as they alternately gab and grieve in airless cars, wipe-clean roadside diners and cheapjack motel rooms, “The Parting Glass” takes that time: The family is ostensibly headed to Colleen’s apartment to sort through her belongings, but the trip inevitably grows into a larger familial reckoning, swirling raucous memories with recounted mistakes.
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It may bring them closer in the process, but sometimes painfully so. Dan, a gay actor and adopted New Yorker, has his own unresolved feelings of ill-fitting isolation in his family; the line between coddling and bullying is a strangely fine one in the way his less cosmopolitan older sisters acknowledge his difference. In Karl, meanwhile, they have a joint target of sometimes cruelly overt scorn: We’re left to infer from passing details and reactions what went awry in his marriage to their sister, but it’s clear he’s always felt the burn of the family closing ranks against him, and the film’s sympathies are evenly spread. Amid these present-day interactions, the character of Colleen emerges in sharp, telling fragments, as we’re left to surmise how growing up in the wake of this feisty brood might have set her off-kilter: Paquin may have only shards to work with, with her face even obscured in most of her scenes, but hers is a piercingly moving mini-performance, switching between guarded intensity and feckless silliness to paint a full life in the margins.
The other actors, for their part, play the manifold tensions between them like a skilled string orchestra, abetted by keen-eyed casting. Before we’ve even learned the relevant backstory, Ifans shuffling, hangdog screen presence marks him immediately apart from O’Hare, Leo and Nixon, who talk over, under and against each other with garrulous, intuitive energy. O’Hare’s quick, perceptive dialogue gives them plenty to chew on and riff on in a film infused with the spirit of theatrical improv: Even a simple drink order comes drenched in character detail. Cinematographer Guy Godfree, capturing the crisp, hard light of a Midwestern winter, and editor Todd Sandler both follow the restless, agitated flow of the writing with unflashy fluency. “The Parting Glass” may be first and foremost an actors’ piece, but all involved handle its wise, fragile truths with due care.