Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

TIFF Review: Blackbird


Chris and I caught the last four days of the Toronto International Film Festival and saw a whirlwind 14 movies, recording 15-30 minute reviews for each which will be rolled out over time. Every day, I’ll try to post a summary in this abbreviated format, along with the episode link.

TIFF Update #4: Blackbird

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis: When Lily (Susan Sarandon) learns she’s dying from a terminal illness, she and her husband (Sam Neill) gather the family together for one final weekend celebration. As her adult daughters (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska) work through their own forms of preemptive grief, unexpected feelings come to the surface.

My take:

This is a film I went in expecting very little from. If I’m honest, I was tempted not to go in at all — star-studded cast aside, the concept seemed well-trod to the point of insufferability. A dysfunctional family airs their bourgeois grievances in some idyllic location or another. Ira Sachs had already done virtually the exact same thing with this year’s Frankie, to say nothing of Woody Allen’s ouevre. Why should I trust the director of Notting Hill to have a fresh take on the premise?

All I can say is I’m extremely glad I stuck around. Blackbird serves as a powerful reminder that understatement is overrated; that searing melodrama, when executed well, can sometimes be the most beautiful way to tell a story. And this one is damn near flawless, even as it signposts its emotional twists a mile away. The secret? A phenomenal cast to sell the emotions, and a script that gives its heavy moments ample room to breathe. Winslet and Wasikowska are given the showiest roles (and nail them), but there isn’t a dud in the bunch: from Rainn Wilson as the overeager son-in-law to Bex Taylor-Claus as the black sheep girlfriend, every actor brings a lifetime of authenticity to their role. The chemistry is uniformly fabulous, and Roger Michell is more than happy to let us luxuriate in it: if the 3 or 4 tear-jerking plot points are what burn most brightly in your brain, it’s only because of the moments of breezy, unstructured joy that proceeded them, gave them a reason to exist. Like Rachel Getting Married or About Time, this is a film that is at its best when it’s basking in a family simply /being/: one extended scene of gift giving made me cry more than every monologue combined, and virtually nothing is happening in it that the audience is privy to. Inside jokes with origins we’ll never know, knowing glances with meanings we only catch obliquely. Exuding that special, lived in sort of warmth where a laugh, alone, is enough to make you laugh — emotion as a thing shared rather than witnessed or understood. So earnest and plentiful are those nuanced moments, that when the drama tilts into heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama, I don’t feel the slightest bit manipulated — I feel filled, nourished, thankful to have these characters navigate the Big Questions alongside me. If Paddleton tackled mortality with gorgeous, quiet naturalism, Blackbird proves that there’s more than one way to get at a mystery; more than one way to grieve it, more than one way to laugh through it. What a treasure of a film.

Pairs with: Paddleton, Frankie, Rachel Getting Married

Episode link: TIFF 2019: Blackbird