By Leah Greenblatt
September 16, 2020 at 06:51 PM EDT
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Parisa Taghizadeh/Screen Media

Blackbird

B-
type
  • Music

Once upon a time, film festivals were pretty much made for projects like Blackbird; tearful, elegantly shot dramas whose subject matter and starry cast seem almost genetically engineered for prestige platforms and eventual prizes.

The movie finally arrives this Friday in theaters and on VOD, a sort of small, oblivious time traveler from 2019 (where it did the rounds at Toronto last fall), and there is something almost soothing about the familiar cushy contours of its formula. Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill are Lily and Paul, a couple who should just be coming into their golden years: They have the lovely, empty nest — sun-dappled Connecticut shoreline, bowl of decorative gourds on the countertop, chickens clucking in the garden — and each other. What they don’t have is time; Lily has advanced ALS, and she’s determined to say goodbye on her own terms.

And so she gathers her loved ones, including her two grown daughters (Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska), and best friend (Lindsay Duncan), for one last weekend. Winslet, drabbed down in brown hair and suburban minivan-mom wear, comes off like the classic eldest child: bustling in early with her beta husband (Rainn Wilson) and vaguely embarrassed teenage son (Crawl’s Anson Boon), she’s cheerfully officious, her body a taut wire of anxiety beneath the sweater sets and khaki slacks.

That leaves Wasikowska’s Anna to be the designated mess; an aimless bohemian with her on-and-off partner, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and her ratty Converse, still trying to find career bliss somewhere between acupuncture and yoga therapy. There’s a whole symphony of passive aggression between the sisters, and enough generalized tension in the air — at the weekend’s end, Lily plans to take her lethal dose of painkillers — to sink a small rowboat. But the group carries on with their wine and walks and family meals, skirting the reality of what’s to come like a third rail.

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) makes everything look gorgeous, from a bushel of white tulips to the late-morning sunlight streaming through a window, as the plot churns steadily through familial resentments and revelations, secrets and lies. Sarandon is a welcome, prickly presence, unyielding in her intention to go out with at least some faculties intact, and Neil makes for a warm, crinkly-eyed corrective; six feet of concerned kindness wrapped in a shawl-collar cardigan.

Christian Torpe, adapting from his own work on the 2014 Danish film Silent Heart, works hard to fit several lifetimes worth of issues into the script, which often has the unfortunate effect of making the actors declare their personalities and intentions in stagy, oversize ways (a fact made more frustrating by the caliber of talent on board). The last 15 minutes are frankly devastating — catharsis, thy name is ugly-cry! — but it all feels a little manipulative and thinly told in the end; Nancy Meyers reset in the key of tragedy. B–

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