A family gathers to celebrate the life of its terminally-ill matriarch over one weekend in Blackbird. Based on the Danish film A Silent Heart (2014), the outstanding cast of actors brings truth and poignance to this family drama.
Roger Michell directs this slice-of-life film – more accurately, a slice of the end of life. Lily (Susan Sarandon) has decided to die with dignity before succumbing to ALS, and her husband Paul (Sam Neill) gathers the family to spend some final moments together.
These last days are stilted by awkward small talk, captured expertly by Kate Winslet as neurotic daughter Jennifer and the very funny Rainn Wilson as her typically-dorky husband, Michael. They talk about casual topics like weather and school plays, nailing the suburban couple archetype with ease and often very funny nuance – a welcome reprieve from the sadness of this film’s subject matter.
Mia Wasikowska rounds out the principal cast as troubled daughter Anna, who is reluctant to go along with Lily’s morbid – and illegal – plan to commit suicide.
The usual family activities are juxtaposed with the stark reality of what’s happening to these people: they’re about to lose a piece of themselves, and they are all too aware of it as they attempt to do “normal” things at Lily’s request – play charades, indulge in unhealthy foods, read the paper, catch up, drink wine. The only out-of-the-ordinary event is a special early-Christmas dinner during which Lily tells darkly funny jokes and bestows meaningful gifts on each of her loved ones; this lengthy scene from screenwriter Christian Torpe is moving and smart. It sums up the Walt Whitman line: “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”
Here the small talk gives way to meaningful conversations about mortality … which eventually leads to complicated family tension, the opposite of what Lily wants in her last days. Sarandon exudes her usual calm talent as a woman who has made peace with the end of her life – it’s her family’s unwillingness to accept it that leads Blackbird into melodramatic territory. Though they’re all seemingly “OK” with her choice, the difficulties of facing the loss is overwhelming and leads to emotionally-charged performances from this great group of actors.
Sadness is obviously at the center of this family’s story: not fear, or anxiety, or uncertainty. Just a strange and low level of knowing that something is ending, that carries the viewer away in this weekend. The story ebbs and flows from awkward to painful to heartbreaking. As life does. Somehow, this movie about death is full of life, and begs the question: what would you say and do if you knew it was the end? Acknowledge the complexity of being a mother and wife? Say a simple “thank you” to a friend you’ve known for 50 years? Tell your grandson that there’s no secret to a life well-lived, but that he should write hand-written thank-you notes and always be on time? This is what Lily does, and more.
Blackbird is unique because it bounces between being beautifully-written and cringe-inducing – which could be precisely the point. Despite some shortcomings in its plot and melodramatic moments, it puts a human face on the political issue of dying with dignity.
“It’s just weird,” Jennifer says. “You’re here now and tomorrow you’ll be dead. And we know.” Lily’s calm reply is the theme of the film, a universal reminder for anyone facing a crossroads in life: “But I’m here now. And I’m really … here now.”
Blackbird is on digital and in select theaters this Friday, Sept. 18.