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Rachel Getting Married

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Written by Jenny Lumet

Starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and Bill Irwin

Rated R

Now Playing in Limited Release

Almost a year ago, I reviewed Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding: a film about a damaged and grotesquely self-involved woman, Margot, returning to her childhood home to attend her sister’s wedding. The family collapses and rebuilds over the course of film, with Margot always at its center. At a cursory glance, Jonathan Demme’s new film, Rachel Getting Married, is the exact same story.

It’s entirely to Demme’s credit that he can take what should have been a nearly identical film to Baumbach’s, and allow it to transcend genre in a way Margot couldn’t. Baumbach’s Margot was a sharp, witty, and extremely thoughtful film — an adept exploration of family. But watching Rachel Getting Married makes deeply apparent everything that Margot lacks; Demme’s film has both technical subtlety and emotional grace, and gives its characters the freedom to move through the movie with complete honesty.

Margot was clearly the work of a skilled director; it is brisk and intelligent. What separates Demme — what makes him great — is his ability to invest Rachel with such vigorous humanity.

The film chronicles the wedding of its title character Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), but as the title shrewdly pokes at, the film itself and the characters within it are largely occupied with the return of Rachel’s sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) from rehab. Demme’s film seamlessly shifts its focus between these two somewhat predictable indie-movie tropes: the small, truthful family portrait, and the intense, “provocative” depiction of a drug addict.

Demme acknowledges that these themes are each only a fraction of any sort of reality, and lets the movie grapple between being a celebration of family and union, and a meditation on human weakness and loss. It’s this tension that gives the film its breadth and honesty: we see its characters at their most tender moments, but also at their darkest and most abject.

Rachel Getting Married is particularly effective because of its rigorous and brilliantly executed documentary style: it is filmed almost entirely on handheld D.V. cameras. The movie’s scenes are mainly composed of large, only loosely scripted family gatherings, and the director of photography, Declan Quinn allowed multiple cameramen to roam the scenes freely, picking up unexpected moments and conversations. The film would sometimes subtly switch to footage from the cameras of characters within the movie, particularly the groom’s cousin and the wedding photographer.

Similarly, the soundtrack of the film comes from within the scenes themselves: the wedding musicians music seeps wonderfully into every scene. The actors themselves had little indication of when the camera was on and what was being filmed, and were compelled to respond intuitively and honestly to the scenes around them.

The film is devoted to capturing and incorporating every character in its scenes, even if they only have a single line, or are simply dancing in the corner. There are some stunning individual performances, but Demme depends on the humanity and honesty in every single one of his characters to build his film and give it its weight. Focusing on individual actors — no matter how good they are — seems to distract from what makes Rachel Getting Married so great.