The Grief of Others
Directed by Patrick Wang
I had the opportunity to attend a screening of The Grief of Others with the director Patrick Wang ’98. Wang studied economics and concentrated in music and theater arts at MIT, and went on to direct theatre and recently, film. His first film, In the Family, was critically lauded and rightly so. The Grief of Others, his latest film, just showed at the Cannes Film Festival. Wang left early from the screening I attended at Harvard to go to the Festival; as a result, I did not get the chance to ask him about the film. But I did get the chance to ask the author of the eponymous novel on which the film is based, Leah Hager Cohen, about one of the film’s final shots.
The “Others” in The Grief of Others primarily refers to the Ryrie family: John and Ricky (a female), thirteen-year-old Paul and ten-year-old Biscuit (also a female). They are joined by Jessica, John’s older, pregnant teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Jessica, beautiful and affable, is invited by John to stay with the family during her pregnancy.
If the Ryries are the others, their grief is the loss of their baby: it is born missing part of its brain and dies soon after birth. The loss is unaddressed by John and Ricky.
In the emptiness, latent resentments and insecurities in their relationship fester, and the children act out. John gets irritable and drunk often. Ricky is cold to him. Biscuit skips school. Paul, bullied for his weight, withdraws further into his shell.
Here and there is the occasional fight.
The direction of causation is important here. The film is constructed as if the family’s silence is the cause of their unrest: the silence presumed, the unrest depicted. But it takes an emotionally stunted people to lose a child and, I imagine, not to speak about it on the ride home. This is one of the film’s flaws.
Otherwise, the content of the film is unerring. The dramatic moments that Wang chooses to illustrate are occasionally original and always authentic. As others have written, this is likely reflective of his experience in theatre.
The film aspires to melodrama, however, and does not achieve it. This aspiration is reflected in the film’s execution. The majority of the film depicts everyday life in the Ryrie house, which exists in an upstate New York of muted colors. Conflict is subtle, mostly implied and obliquely so.
Explicit conflict is sparing, yet we long for the scenes where bonds are tested and formed. John comes home one night drunk and confronts Ricky with suspicion of an affair. Ricky admits instead that she knew the baby would not live. Paul, usually defensive, opens up to Jessica. Then, he grows a bit too close.
In these shots, Wang keeps the camera far away and stationary, relying on the strength of the dialogue and the moment (and it is strong). Simple match cuts and fades — though, at times, borderline amateurish — underscore the confidence of the storytelling. To be sure, the distant style is to be appreciated: it does indeed feel as if we are peering into the lives of others.
It is unfortunate that these moments are few and far between. There is simply not enough dimension to the family’s grief to sustain such prolonged, enigmatic treatment.
This is only made terribly clear by the film’s other major storyline. At the beginning of the film, Biscuit, her back to the camera, is throwing something into the Hudson. She falls in (though, like many of the events in the film, it is unclear at the time). A shy, sensitive young man named Gordie Joiner, out on a walk with his dog, rescues Biscuit from the water and brings her home. He is invited in and meets Jessica. Jessica begins to spend time with him.
Gordie lives alone with his dog in his family home. His mother has been gone a long time, and his father has recently passed. He is an orphan.
Is Jessica interested in Gordie? It is questionable. She is pregnant and that complicates things. Still, Jessica is taken with him: we sense Gordie is a welcome foil to past boyfriends, to the absent father of her unborn child. In time, the nature of their relationship will offer a pretense for Gordie to express his own grief.
His grief is immediately palpable: Gordie and Jessica are bashful in one another’s presence, as one is with a teenage crush, but Gordie is a bit more reserved in showing affection. Still, they connect over his deceased father’s handmade dioramas. Where Gordie sees a kitschy, pitiful escape for his modest, blue-collar, postal worker father, Jessica sees heartbreaking art.
Gordie is the only main character not part of the Ryrie family. His story seems altogether distinct from theirs. But his suffering is equivalent, if not greater, for the circumstances in which he has to deal with it: Gordie is young and alone.
He occupies little screen time, and yet, in a story that is subtle, told through assumption and inference, in a story that aspires to put a greater burden on its audience, that is what the enigma of his grief is worth. When Gordie’s story comes to a climax, when he confronts Jessica, the reveal is beautiful. Their walks on the river, their discussions of Gordie’s father’s dioramas, wistful and moving yet vague, pay off.
With Gordie, Wang conveys the manifestations and consequences of unspoken grief in a fraction of the time he spends with the Ryries. By far, Gordie’s story is the best part of The Grief of Others.
Comparisons of the movie with Wang’s previous, superior film In the Family are inevitable, as it is a thoughtful family drama similar in style. In the Family tells the story of Joey, a gay man played by Wang himself, who, after his partner dies, loses custody of his son, biologically his partner’s from a previous marriage. The war of In the Family is enormously more daunting: Joey is poised against the weight of all the American South’s homophobia for the right to parent his son. By comparison, the Ryries’ only enemies are themselves, the stakes only their own solace. The contrast between the self-involvedness of The Grief of Others and the utter lack of selfishness of Joey in In the Family — one of the most humble and compassionate men I’ve seen on film — is remarkable.
Ironically, Wang treats Joey’s story in In the Family with less melodrama than the Ryries’ in The Grief of Others.
Still, the film is a good one, and Wang is a talented director. I regret that I didn’t get the chance to ask him about the film. In particular, near the end of the film, the shot opens up (in reality, there is an effect that regrettably seems to have been executed with Microsoft Paint) to show the Ryries within the context of the world at large, surrounded by ordinary people unaware of (and so indifferent to) the family’s grief despite their physical proximity.
It was sad. I asked Leah Hager Cohen whether she thought that was the way life is, or whether we might expect greater empathy, involvement, or a way to truly and meaningfully engage in such moments with the grief of others.
She replied that she believed when we share our griefs with others, we enforce a common empathy. True, though somewhat of a non-answer.
I didn’t press. I felt uncomfortable enough as presumably the only person under 40 in the audience, much less the only person to ask about the meaning of the film. Cohen’s response was, after all, the expected yet imperative message of the film itself: the grief of others is the same as our own.
So let’s talk.