An angry yet quiet exploration of the consequences of grief, Russell Harbaugh’s directorial debut, Love After Love, deserves a larger audience than such a small film will probably find. While hardly a beam of sunshine, Love After Love is vital in a way that few dramas about death and its aftermath are. Much of this is due to an exceptional performance from Andie MacDowell. She’s even more appealing now than she was nearly 30 years ago in Sex, Lies, and Videotape and the quality of her performance raises questions as to why we see more of such a talented actress in commercials lately than we do in feature films.

Love After Love’s title is a bit of misnomer, as it seems to suggest that the filmgoer is going to experience a redemptive love story. Instead, the film follows Suzanne (MacDowell) and her two sons Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian) as they deal with the painful, wrenching death of a husband and father. Too often, films fetishize death, inviting viewers to revel in tragedy, to get a cathartic cry out of the way and move on, glad that what happens onscreen isn’t happening to them. Love After Love’s ambitions are more textured, and after taking us through the initial tragedy, the film pushes forward into following the aftermath for each of the three main characters.

For Suzanne, moving on means making a go at love again, as both a way of fighting off loneliness and also to discover parts of herself that may have gone missing or been malnourished during her long marriage. For Nicholas, it means sabotaging his own marriage to Rebecca (Juliet Rylance) and then shooting bullets of bitter, toxic masculine insecurity at everyone who comes within range. And for Chris, the death sends him into a spiral of self-destruction that at first seems even worse than Nicholas’, only to take an unexpected turn that provides Love After Love with a glimmer of hope and also some much-needed comic relief.

Harbaugh, who co-wrote the film with Eric Mendelsohn, apparently based the story off his own family, which makes his avoidance of the maudlin and sentimental all the more admirable. All of the characters, and particularly the three leads, feel incredibly real and that realness comes from a combination of recognizable emotion and unexpected action. Suzanne, Nicholas and Chris make mistakes, act out and occasionally make very little sense. Cinematographer Chris Teague gives Love After Love a timeless, somehow-nostalgic look that perfectly fits the theme.

Occasionally, Love After Love feels like a collection of related vignettes rather than a comprehensive whole, which keeps the viewer at a distance. The often-frustrating characters are occasionally kept too far away from us, making them even more difficult to understand. This particularly applies to O’Dowd’s Nicholas, who is so bitter that there really needed to be more opportunities to get close to him.

Love After Love is perhaps most satisfying as an opportunity to appreciate MacDowell, who brings vulnerability, strength, sexiness, sadness, hope and horror to the screen with incredible dexterity, even as her face changes only a millimeter at a time. Her Suzanne is so fulfilling to watch because she’s real, taking us through our own hopes and fears while still carrying out a life that is appealingly human in its messiness.

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