Film & Television

‘The Rest of Us’ Focuses On An Unlikely
Family of Women

The first coronavirus stay-at-home orders were issued two and a half months ago. Non-essential workers were directed not to leave their homes except for necessary errands (like grocery shopping or medical treatment). For many couples, especially in coastal cities where exorbitant real estate and rent prices often mean tight quarters, the forced togetherness may be wearing thin. In fact, pundits — and some sociologists — predict a rise in divorce rates when this is all over.

To pass the time or perhaps to avoid each other (see above), more people are streaming more entertainment than ever before. Last month, Netflix announced its biggest quarter ever, with nearly 16 million new subscribers. And other subscription services report similar growth. 

Whether or not you’re contemplating divorce yourself (and I sincerely hope things haven’t reached that point yet, my friend), there are excellent films, across multiple genres, that deal with the subject.

Many center around revenge. Who can forget Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn triumphantly dancing down a Soho street in First Wives Club (1996)? Or the battle royale between Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in The War of the Roses (1989), or Angela Basset lighting her husband’s BMW on fire in Waiting to Exhale (1995)? It’s Complicated (2009) uses a divorce as the backdrop for a love triangle between Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Last year’s Oscar-winning A Marriage Story painfully dissected the complex, expensive, and soul-shattering process of decoupling, recalling perhaps the best, most honest and moving divorce film of all: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

Before you search for any or all of these titles, let me recommend a quiet Canadian film I’ve just stumbled across. The Rest of Us, written by Alanna Francis and directed by Aisling Chin-Yee, is the story of a divorced woman who offers help and a home to her ex-husband’s second family.

Although “Craig” doesn’t appear in the film, he sets everything in motion when he has a heart attack and drowns in the bathtub. Ex-wife Cami (Heather Graham) and college student daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) attend the wake in what was once their home but now belongs to his second wife, Rachel (Jodi Balfour) and tween daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). To describe the scene as awkward doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Craig, it turns out, has been struggling financially, and Rachel learns that the home and all its contents will be auctioned to pay his debts. Cami, a successful author and illustrator, invites Rachel and Talulah to stay, enraging Aster, who still resents her father for abandoning her. The four become an unlikely family, and, as such, go through a range of family dynamics, from resentment to reliance, support, betrayal, and eventual sisterly affection.

Chin-Yee, an accomplished and award-winning producer (The Rest of Us is her feature-film directorial debut), explained to Women and Hollywood that she was attracted to the project as soon as she read Francis’s script. “She wrote characters that I could relate to — flawed, funny, real women who are going through the confusion of life, but each from their own experience and perspective. From a precocious kid, to a petulant and angst-ridden teen, to a young lost widow, to a successful but lonely writer, the story felt truthful and moody. I connected with each of these characters very personally.”

 

 

The characters are portrayed by a tremendous cast of women. Graham, who rose to stardom as “Rollergirl” in 1997’s Boogie Nights, delivers a thoughtful and sensitive performance as Cami. Despite her emotionally tangled past (and a complicated and not entirely honest present), she is a natural mother figure and, therefore, a fixer. When she learns that Rachel and Tallulah have been living in their car, she doesn’t hesitate for a second to offer an alternative. Her instinct is to build a family, even as Craig’s was to dismantle one. “Your need to be a saint is pathological,” her daughter sneers at her.

Aster is struggling with her own issues. She’s finished a year of college, but — unbeknownst to her mother — doesn’t plan to return. She’s living in a camper on her mom’s property, where she illicitly hooks up with the boyfriend of her best friend. And the “daddy issues” I mentioned earlier haven’t disappeared with her father’s accidental death. Nélisse is compelling in the role, personifying Aster’s conflicted feelings with raw honesty, pouting like a petulant child one minute, upbraiding her mother and taking responsibility for her newfound half-sister the next. I was unfamiliar with this gifted 20-year old actress but hope to see more of her in the future.

Pniowsky, the ensemble’s youngest member, is also remarkably good. She holds her own with the older women in the cast whenever they’re together, including at an over-engineered “dinner party” for her birthday. She speaks about her father in the present tense, quick to get angry when anyone gently reminds her that he’s dead. These instances — and there are several — are appropriately disconcerting but utterly believable.

Balfour, recently seen as Jackie Kennedy in The Crown, is just as engaging. Her Rachel is torn. She feels guilt for taking Craig away from his first family. (When Cami asks if she has friends who can help, she wryly answers that as “a homewrecker,” she does not.) At the same time, she has also been abandoned by him, albeit under different circumstances. She strikes up an improbable friendship with Aster and envies Cami’s ease with Talulah. “I never wanted to be a mother,” she admits, although she clearly and lovingly worries for her daughter’s future.

The two mothers go about their new life together gingerly until a revelation forces the two to confront each other. This climax (which you may, as I did, see for a mile coming) shatters their accidental coexistence. Aster becomes the adult and rescues Talulah from the impending fireworks. The two girls come to terms with their father’s death together while the two mothers are forced to confess, forgive, and accept their new lives. While I’ve alluded to a predictable twist in the story, it by no means diminishes the fine performances of all involved, nor the resolute and unapologetic way that Chin-Yee quietly ends the film.

The director describes what makes The Rest of Us resonate this way:

“Major life changes and the pain of losing someone comes with so many complicated emotions and contradictory reactions. This family of women each try to cope and move forward in the ways they know how, and I saw myself in each of their actions and feelings of anger, joy, and pain. I connected deeply with each woman, but especially Cami, and how she tries to mask her feelings or vulnerabilities by being controlling and perfect in sometimes humorous ways that inevitably backfire on her. The spirit of the film is anchored by the feeling of being alone around others, and the times that we let ourselves feel sadness, hurt, and sometimes shame. These characters felt like sisters to me, perspectives of real people that I know and care for. This film is clearly from the perspectives of women trying to get a handle on life, move forward, and deal with the past in the ways they know how.”

Even though the story of The Rest of Us can’t take place without the actions, decisions, and fate of a man, the film passes the Bechdel Test famously. Cami, Aster, Rachel, and Talulah’s experience is uniquely female; it’s impossible to imagine an ex-husband, widower, and two sons forming the same kind of ad hoc and unconventional (but nevertheless nurturing) household. 

Or, as the director puts it, “This film is a celebration of the bond that women share and the resilience that so many women that I know have to roll up their sleeves and get shit done.”

Amen, sister.

The Rest of Us is available to rent on Amazon.

 

 

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  • Andrea June 2, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    A lovely movie

    Reply