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Dustin Putman

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Lullaby  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Andrew Levitas.
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Richard Jenkins, Anne Archer, Jessica Brown Findlay, Amy Adams, Jessica Barden, Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Daniel Sunjata, Frankie Shaw, Darren Le Gallo, Maddie Corman, Anne V., Chris Beetem, Zac Ballard, Miles Kath, Sterling Jerins.
2014 – 117 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 11, 2014.
One needn't know anything about the genesis of "Lullaby" to suspect that it comes from a deeply personal place—and, indeed, it does. In 1991, filmmaker Andrew Levitas—then a young teenager—learned that his father was ill and only had six months to live. Through the care of doctors and his own family, he ultimately held on for ten years. It was an experience that has remained with Levitas, seeming to inform, in many ways, the man he became. The emotions connected to saying good-bye to a loved one are intimately and honestly felt in his graceful, character-driven directorial debut. Although locations are limited—the bulk of the story takes place in a New York hospital—the picture avoids the threat of staginess and claustrophobia, opening up a handful of times throughout to show the world forever in motion outside the doors of the clinic. The usual delicacy of the script and the power of the performances further contribute to a final outcome that is unsparing in its heavy subject matter, but inspiring all the same.

With his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), in the final stages of a 12-year battle with cancer, 26-year-old son Jonathan Lowenstein (Garrett Hedlund) has returned to be with his family in these final days. He has been gone for a while, toiling away in L.A. as a struggling musician while successfully avoiding the truth of his dad's escalating sickness, and his reappearance only serves to rustle up feelings inside himself that he has kept bottled for too long. When Jonathan and his younger sister, 23-year-old law student Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay), learn that Robert, a wealthy CEO, has left the house to wife Rachel (Anne Archer) but given away their inheritance, the security they assumed they would have suddenly vanishes. "I love you both," Robert tells his children, "and I raised a couple of spoiled brats."

Despite this setup, "Lullaby" does not wallow in strife between parents and children, nor is Robert's decision that of a man with a grudge. He does love Jonathan and Karen, and he knows that the only way for them to make their own marks after he is gone is for them to do it for themselves. Tired of feeling pain and believing himself to be a burden, Robert announces shortly after his kids' arrival that he is planning an assisted suicide—something to which Karen is adamantly opposed. It is a controversial practice, one that relies on a number of factors including the support of medical professionals and one's own soundness of mind, but Levitas faces it head-on while posing an entirely credible question: if a person is terminal and physically suffering, are the moral and ethical quandaries related to ending his or her life still valid? There is no finite answer provided because Levitas knows that viewers will have a variety of strong opinions on the matter. He does, however, sympathize with both sides while acknowledging that, in certain cases, it can be a dignified rather than cowardly choice.

Widely told from his character of Jonathan's point of view, Garrett Hedlund (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis") anchors the film in a complicated role prone to frustrating defiance and prickly anguish. Underneath his heightened troubles is a good man seeking to understand how he became the unhappy, guarded person he is in the present day. In many ways, the root of the problem in his relationships—not only with his family, but also an ex-girlfriend who got away, the now-married Emily (Amy Adams)—isn't that he is unfeeling, but that he doesn't allow himself to open up to those around him. A too frequently unheralded veteran actor—let's be honest, he is one of the greats—Richard Jenkins (2013's "The Company You Keep") brings exquisite grace to the ailing Robert. Tired of fighting a disease that has compromised all facets of his quality of life, he is caught between wanting to find closure with his wife and children, and his desire to let go. As Rachel, Anne Archer (2009's "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past") poignantly locates the aching struggle of a matriarch who questions how she will live for herself after the man she has given so much to is gone. Of the four central Lowensteins, Jonathan's stubborn, Type-A sister Karen is the most undernourished, her biggest scene where she uses her skills as a practicing attorney to make a case for why her dad should go on living also the film's most overwrought. Hers is not explored quite as well as her leading co-stars, but Jessica Brown Findlay (2014's "Winter's Tale") brings conviction and a detectably sensitive bond with Jonathan to Karen.

Two figures standing on the fringe of the story may or may not be convenient screenwriting constructs, but they act as effective sounding boards for Jonathan while helping to better inform the potential he has within him. Jessica Barden (2011's "Hanna") is unforgettable as Meredith, a 17-year-old hospital patient slowly dying from bone marrow cancer with whom Jonathan forms an unexpected friendship. Meredith's self-deprecating gregariousness is undercut by the devastation of a young girl who is aware of all the things she'll never get to experience, and Barden navigates her emotionally trying role with a moving, breathtaking transcendence. And then there's Emily, the love of Jonathan's life who broke things off with him years earlier without a proper explanation. He has never fully gotten over her, and their reuniting gives him the chance he has been wanting to understand what went wrong between them. Her participation is of the decidedly supporting variety, but Amy Adams (2013's "Her") is a lovely, low-key addition to the ensemble, her handful of scenes giving levity and further depth to a film that is about the beauty of life as much as it is about the process of death.

"Lullaby" is a tough, melancholic drama without a marketable hook outside of its excellent cast. It is because of this that the film is receiving a limited theatrical/VOD release plan with comparatively little promotion. Hopefully, over time, it will find the appreciation it deserves with its rightful audience. Identifiable themes involving the bid for parental acceptance and the fear of failure share time with emotionally true moments where Jonathan, Rachel and Karen grapple with an unpreparable loss. Beyond that, there is something thoroughly satisfying in connecting to a movie about people and common human experiences rather than easily digestible loglines and gimmicks. Culminating in the endurance of memories and hope for the future, "Lullaby" strikes an unforced, resonating chord. It is so much more than just a sad tale.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman