There has been no shortage of dysfunctional family dramas in the last ten years. Rarely are they done well, because screenwriters have a tendency to make every character as quirky as possible. Consequently, you end up with a picture with so much non-stop eccentricity that it becomes annoying. Blackbird doesn't have that problem. Writer Christian Torpe is more interested in making the family at the center of his story real, rather than colorful. It makes all the difference, ensuring this particular family drama hits you on an emotional level.
Susan Sarandon plays Lily, a woman who has her entire family gather at the home she shares with husband Paul (Sam Neill). There's uptight daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and her spouse Michael (Rainn Wilson), troubled daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) and her girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and grandson Jonathan (Anson Boon). Also there is longtime best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). The reason for their gathering is that Lily is terminally ill and plans to end her life on her own terms.
Everyone has agreed to the plan, although not all of them are okay with it deep down. The pressure of the moment drawing nearer brings out fears and insecurities. Jennifer and Anna start to clash. A secret held by several of the characters comes to the surface. Do those things happen in other family dramas? Almost always. The distinguishing factor is that Blackbird doesn't overdo it. The conflict between the sisters is authentic – one's life is chaotic, the other filled with structure and responsibility. They fundamentally don't understand each other. We can tell there's love between them, it's just a love that comes with the stress of having wildly opposing personalities.
Winslet and Wasikowska are standouts in a cast where everyone shines. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has assembled his actors carefully. Together, they create a dynamic that makes this feel like an actual family. Some members are more vocal about their thoughts, others hang back and observe. Different people balance each other out. A sense of connectedness is there, even when two or more of them are at odds. The concept of “coming together for an assisted suicide” could have come off as sappy, yet the stars sell the idea that this gathering is an act of support for a beloved matriarch.
Trying to develop eight different characters simultaneously means some of them – Jonathan, for example – remain thinly-developed, and a relatively brief 97-minute running time (including credits) ensures we don't get a super-deep understanding of why the family members relate to each other the way they do. Blackbird works, though, because we get enough of those elements to care about what happens.
The movie builds to an ending that's poignant, touching and, most importantly, earned.
out of four
Blackbird is rated R for language, some drug use and brief sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.