Reel Life: Flick Pix
Mother bestows fond farewell on three daughters Down Under
By Nora Lee Mandel
Written and Directed by Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen
Produced by Eva Di Blasio
DVD Released by Film Movement
Australia. 88 min. Not Rated in U.S.
With: Nicola Bartlett, James Hagan, Nina Deasley, Melanie Munt, Arielle Gray, and Scott Jackson
Four women come together for a last Christmas in the heat of the Australian summer. Susan (Nicola Bartlett) is the mother, embracing with equanimity both the jovial return of her craggy husband James (James Hagan) to Perth from yet another distant acting gig, and the fatal return of her cancer. She thinks about each (attractive) daughter, and then a close-in, hand-held camera follows each individually to just before hearing the news of their mother’s terminal prognosis, sharing a mother-daughter tête-à-tête, and facing the future without her. (Though each woman’s musing to the camera is not explained and comes across as too similar to the over-used faux documentary style of TV shows like The Office.)
Christmas dinner is returned to as seen from each member of the family’s perspective, emphasizing that each is in a different phase of life. (Because the sense of the family’s ongoing connection is so clear, it is not a fraught reunion piece like Arnaud Desplechin’s 2008 A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noël).) The eldest daughter is Nina (Nina Deasley), a widow with two children who are the only grandchildren. As she deals with her mother’s passing, she can finally face her mixed feelings about her husband’s death. The middle daughter Anna (Melanie Munt) is an actress, in a strained marriage with a filmmaker Mark (Scott Jackson) who doesn’t even cast her in his movies. But she’s busy carrying on an aggressive affair with her theater co-star Rick (Nick Candy). The youngest, Christine (Arielle Gray), is still living with her parents while she goes to medical school, but away from home she is getting closer and closer to her girlfriend. (As the only female pairing, she’s the one partner not going through conflicted experiences).
While gradually the complications in the daughters’ lives are revealed and how they carry on, the climaxes are less what happens to them and more the benediction the mother intimately one-by-one delivers to each. Each daughter reflects a different part of herself, and she gives of herself differently to each. Though some of her actual dialogue, unfortunately, comes very close to sounding like advice from Polonius, Bartlett invests so much intensity in these eye-to-eye exchanges that the emotion surmounts what she actually says. And I have to admit, as someone who recently lost a parent where a slide towards dementia prevented such an exchange, I reacted viscerally to the daughters’ longing for a farewell filled with acceptance and love whatever the words. In her final session, the mother changes her daughter’s (and the audience’s) outlook on her marriage, and the men in their lives, by revealing a past secret.
Debut writer/director Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen, who dedicates the film to her mother, is strongest through visual storytelling (aided by Jason Thomas’s bright cinematography of sea, sand, birds, and, even wind) and bringing out intense performances. That makes the finale a rich return to the opening scene. The dying mother is so comfortable in her own skin that she can add beautiful tattoos, one for each daughter who should now be able to fly away on her own.
The striking accompanying 15 minute short on the DVD, A Lost And Found Box Of Human Sensation, directed by Martin Wallner and Stephen Leuchtenberg, continues the theme through dramatic animation that emphasizes despair, guilt, and, finally, a recovery to hope and love. Originally from Germany, this English version features the very expressive voices of Ian McKellen, as the narrator, and Joseph Fiennes as the boy coping with the death of his father in order to grow into a man.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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