The Grief of Others is clearly the work of Patrick Wang, whose 2011 intimate epic In the Family approached anguish with minute character observation and a delicate mix of naturalism and theatrical emoting.
First premiered on the festival circuit but only now seeing theatrical release, The Grief of Others is clearly the work of Patrick Wang, whose 2011 intimate epic In the Family approached anguish with minute character observation and a delicate mix of naturalism and theatrical emoting. It begins in a pink haze, looking up at the soft-focus outlines of two women gazing down at the camera with vacant, haunted expressions as they wave goodbye. Only later does this moment make sense, when, in Wang’s carefully jumbled chronology, we belatedly learn that the POV of the opening shot belonged to the baby of Ricky (Wendy Moniz) and John Ryrie (Trevor St. John). Born without a cerebellum, the infant only survived 57 hours outside the womb. Though the film does not reveal this information until well into its running time, the trauma of the loss reverberates through the Ryrie family from the start, tugging at the stability not only of Ricky and John but their two children, the teenaged Paul (Jeremy Shindler) and young daughter Biscuit (Oona Laurence), who pick up on their parents’ bad vibes and react subconsciously.
In fact, the film’s first image of trauma belongs to Biscuit, who rides her bike to the edge of the Hudson River and stands with her back to the camera at the water’s edge, her static body language ambiguously suggesting contemplation. The scene then smash-cuts to her being fished out of the water by Gordie (Mike Faist), a teenager whose dog accidentally knocked her into the river. Gordie takes Biscuit home and explains the situation to an alternately confused, terrified and relieved John, but questions linger over whether Biscuit would have intentionally thrown herself in, questions that recur later when she begins acting out by cutting school and setting small fires in the house. Similarly, Paul, already suffering from bullying due to his weight, sinks within himself, speaking with pronounced, hollow sarcasm when he deigns to speak at all and mostly retreating to his room to sketch. The sudden appearance of Jess (Sonya Harum), John’s little-seen daughter from a prior marriage, throws things into further disarray as the Ryries bond with the girl even as her presence causes them to further bury their grief until it explodes out of them.
Wang keeps much of the focus on John and Ricky, whose inability to process the death of their child manifests in various displays of avoiding the subject. John throws himself into his gallery work as an excuse to stay out of the house, while Ricky tends to walk around in a daze, never fully processing information in conversations. Whenever the two share physical space, however, their grief ruptures in passive-aggressive insinuations, if not outright fights. Wang’s preference for scrambled timelines as a mechanism of delayed context, frequent surprises and abrupt upheavals often shows the couple arguing about some unspecified grievance first before later filling the viewer in on the deeper sources of their mounting revulsion. Rather than use this structure for easy melodrama, however, Wang has a gift for using delayed revelations to complicate his characters, rendering their squabbles as something more than just outbursts. The film’s ordering also reflects how deeply the Ryries have suppressed their feelings to both others and themselves, with belated bombshells coming out only when the characters can no longer keep them repressed. Occasionally, the eruptions are terrifying, as when we see John, reeling from the fresh death of his infant son, learn something about his wife that sends him into a rage.
Such volcanic moments are tempered, however, by Wang’s grasp of complex, competing emotions. Frequently, the characters can be as funny as they are anguished; in an early scene where Paul walks away from classmates’ taunts, he remembers his father instructing him that he should pity anyone who resorts to bullying and begins to hiss viciously about how “sorry” he feels for them. And though the characters give into unsettling displays of fury and recrimination, The Grief of Others consistently returns to smaller observations of quieter coping. Gordie, himself struggling to deal with the death of his artist father, invites Jess over to his home where his dad’s hoarded objects clutter every inch of space. Jess immediately homes in on the elaborate dioramas designed by Gordie’s dad, and as the young man regards a particularly personal one, he is so overwhelmed by the voice of his father in his head that he must excuse himself. For all the film’s confrontations, Wang regularly cuts around direct action to focus on the aftermath: the awkward attempts at apology, the frosty silent treatments and the ashamed confessions. In the process, he makes The Grief of Others more than a film about people torn apart by their agony. Instead, the film gradually collects its quieter moments into a denouement that feels almost transcendent for how thrillingly it pulls grace from the jaws of defeat, re-affirming Wang as one of the pre-eminent humanists of contemporary American cinema.