Disease dramas are in a subgenre that certainly has more misses than hits. If not done in a certain way, you can turn an emotionally stirring story into a schmaltzy mess. Often films find it incredibly difficult to find a balance, but as such with real life, there’s no rule book or true direction as to how to deal with death. Filming this very unnatural, awkward run through the five stages of grief could lead to a good film.
But when you condense that into two hours, there’s not a lot of room explore. Sadly, that seems to be Lullaby in a nutshell. A film that really wants to walk through the five stages of grief when it really should jog at a brisk pace.
Director: Andrew Levitas
Release Date: June 13, 2014 (in theaters and VOD)
Lullaby follows Johnathan (Garrett Hedlund), a guy who’s estranged father is dying from cancer. As he returns home to visit his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins) one last time, he realizes his father has elected to go through an assisted suicide the next morning because his cancer is hurting him so much. As Johnathan waits through the eight hours before his father dies, he meets Meredith (Jessica Barden), a young girl with multiple myloma, gets closer to his sister (Jessica Brown Findlay), and reunites with an ex-girlfriend, Emily (Amy Adams).
At the core of Lullaby is Garrett Hedlund, an actor who’s been in lots of films, but I haven’t had much experience watching myself. I guess what I want to ask is, where has he been all this time? Although much of Lullaby is clouded with a meandering story, Hedlund makes it bearable. Throughout the film, Johnathan is always referred to as some kind of jerk, but Hedlund does his best to make the character easy to digest. Although I got the feeling I’m supposed to root against the guy (as he continues to make the worst decisions), it’s hard not to feel charmed even if some of his scenes are rougher than most. When he’s required to deliver something other than a base deadpan emotion, his performance falls apart. But in a weird way, it sort of works as his stunted delivery helps ostracize him from the rest of his family.
Lullaby has an incredibly strong premise (taking place over 8 hours) that somehow stumbles with its character work. With a premise that basically bottles your cast into one area, the best thing to do is have them play off of each other as the audience discovers different things about their personalities and pasts. That’s usually how films centered around reunions are done, and even with a modernized take on death to shake things up, maybe it could’ve used a few more scenes with the family. You see, as Johnathan straggles off on his own, the rest of the characters are left ill developed and that lack of development makes it hard to invest in their emotional struggles. You would think with a two hour run that there’d be plenty of time to explore, but several detours cause Lullaby to stumble.
As mentioned in the introduction, Lullaby intends to dissect the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) but gets caught up on the first two stages until the final fifteen minutes. Which means we’re essentially stuck with a film that’s all anger and denial with little indication of evolution. It’s a shame too as the cast is filled with great performances. Amy Adams is criminally underutilized, Robert Jenkins is heartbreaking as a sickly father, Anne Archer and Jenkins pair up together so much their chemistry is back in full force, and despite how badly it derails the film (as her arc has little conclusion) Jessica Barden’s Meredith is so great, I hope she’s in more films in the future. But as mentioned, even if Hedlund manages to make it bearable, focusing so much on Johnathan hurts the entire film. It’s especially noticeable in the finale as Lullaby sadly zips through the final three stages, leaving the conclusion wanting.
Watching Lullaby is like swimming through gelatin with a tank low on oxygen. You get breaths of fresh air sparingly (great performances, Meredith is wonderful, the seder), but you’re constantly reminded that all of your struggle is getting you absolutely nowhere. Weirdly, that’s true to life. When a close relative is knocking on death’s door, time sort of stops. Although the world keeps going, for you, everything moves in slow motion.
If that’s Lullaby‘s true purpose, to create a work of art reflecting the self imposed stagnation caused by the impeding death of a loved one, then it’s truly magnificent. But I don’t think that’s what it set out to accomplish.