Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Eckhart) lost their son eight months ago, when he was accidentally run over by a teenage driver (Teller). They are struggling to cope and maintain their marriage, but their differing approaches to the tragedy threaten to tear them apart.
The combination of subject — grief — and star name — Nicole Kidman, who also produces — might suggest self-consciously heavy Oscar bait, but set aside cynicism for a moment, because this is an unexpectedly hilarious, affectingly real look at how anguish can affect people. Sure, the words “acting tours de force” will be applied, deservedly, but this was not made for Academy voters. It feels universal, treating every parent’s ultimate nightmare as something worthy of three-dimensional examination rather than the usual lazy, heavy-handed empathy. John Cameron Mitchell, previously something of an enfant terrible with Hedwig And The Angry Inch and the explicit Shortbus, expertly blends tragedy and comedy here, and deserves all the praise he’s going to get.
So, instead of endless shots of Kidman and Aaron Eckhart heavily emoting or beating their breasts, here are two people going about their lives, albeit lives with a hole in the middle. They still live in a beautiful house, but one that’s full of memories. They still bitch and joke and shout and interact with friends and family and even laugh, however hard that gets. Their support group is a source of awkwardness and trite cliché rather than comfort, and the prescribed milestones in the moving-on playbook — packing up the toys, taking down the childish drawings — are sometimes rushed through or accidentally secured rather than agonised over.
As the gorgeous pair in their perfect home attempt to find new meaning in their lives, they threaten to spin apart. Kidman’s Becca, brittle and uptight, looks to return to her old job and forms a strange friendship with the teenager responsible for the accident (gifted newcomer Miles Teller). But her job has changed and her colleagues gone, and her teenage friend is as plagued by guilt and grief as she is. She’s abandoned by old friends, unable to face the tragedy she represents with their own children still by their sides, and she lashes out at her family’s cack-handed attempts to help — irresponsible, newly pregnant sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) and tipsy mother Nat (Dianne Wiest), herself bereaved. It’s clear that, while everyone has the best of intentions, there is simply nothing that will fix this, no assurance that can be given, when mere everyday life becomes a torturous reminder.
Eckhart’s Howie, meanwhile, has a less complex but no less convincing role. He’s the husband who sits, sleepless, watching videos of their son on his phone. He too forms an inappropriate friendship, with one of the other mothers in their bereaved parents group (Sandra Oh), and seems to regress towards a more carefree time. But he’s also fighting for his marriage, and if he seems more flexible than Becca, he’s just as broken underneath.
While the cast are uniformly excellent, they could hardly be otherwise with David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, based on his own play, to work from. The wit is biting, sometimes bitter, but never dishonest, puncturing the platitudes of grief. So, when another parent says that children died because “God needed another angel”, Becca is moved to laugh and ask, “Then why didn’t he just make one?”
That’s typical of the dialogue, and it’s those lines that ring out, the film not wallowing in grief but revelling in wit. Only in the last few moments does the tragedy really come home and the pair’s pain lie open, fully exposed. But there’s hope amid the ruins, even if there’s no reason for it.
Don't be put off by the content; this is as clever, funny, foolish and frightening as real life. Kidman and Eckhart bring out the best in each other; Kidman, in particular, hasn't been this good since To Die For - and maybe not even then.