Starz Digital Media
Movies that hope to explore the idea and effects of grief aren’t uncommon, but many of them, even the great ones, often exist by design as emotionally devastating experiences. Less common are the films that manage to examine these sad and sorrowful life experiences while still recognizing the rest that life has to offer. Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful Manchester By the Sea is one of the finest such rarities, and hopefully those of you who missed its debut at Sundance will share in its brilliance and heart later this year. For now though you’ll have to settle for a different film and its far slighter step in a similar direction.
Hannah (Rebecca Hall) is a woman whose life is in repose. Her husband, Hunter, fell to his death a few years back while hiking a familiar trail near their rural Maine home, and she’s left with only her memories and her grief. Well, she and the rest of the world are also left with Hunter’s one perfect album – his only album – but while everyone else moves on Hannah is stuck spinning her wheels. She keeps busy writing human interest stories for her small town’s newspaper and occasionally sharing the sheets with a local beefcake (Joe Manganiello), but she spends most of her time struggling to write Hunter’s biography.
She finds further turmoil and help – with her writing and her life – in the form of a visiting college professor named Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) who’s writing his own book on the artist. He’s a true fan of Hunter’s music, but he’s romanticized the man’s lyrics and death to fit a narrative established by those who’ve come and gone before like Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and others.
Director Sean Mewshaw’s feature debut, Tumbledown, is at its best with Hannah’s scenes highlighting her human fragility, and Hall delivers on those intimate moments with tender emotion. She’s the heart of the film, but Mewshaw wisely surrounds her with appealing characters and performers just in case. Blythe Danner, Griffin Dunne, and Richard Masur are always welcome additions. Sudeikis is unsurprisingly the main comic relief, and Andrew’s near-constant state of energetic pep is served well by his timing and delivery.
The script (by Desiree Van Til) sets up a relationship that threatens generic and familiar turns throughout, and it escapes that fate as often as it meets it. Grief and loss aside, the film is enough of a romantic comedy that we believe with certainty that Hannah and Andrew are headed into each other’s arms, but it wisely avoids rushing the pair together. The expected beats are here – they clash, they make-up, there’s a third-act betrayal, etc – but there’s enough respect for Hannah to avoid speeding up the romance. That goodwill eventually runs out though, and too much is jammed into a matter of minutes. It’s almost as if Van Til was within sight of the script’s end before remembering it was a rom-com.
The two leads are amiable and accomplished, but it’s the look at grief and the false narratives of death that see the film reaching higher than expected. Our culture is one that revels in heroes, legends, and posthumous value. Artists who’ve spoken to us through their creations, especially those who seem to share our pain, hold great power, and that’s even more true when the performer dies young. We’ll never know if they would have aged into obscurity as instead they’ve secured a place in our own emotional zeitgeist. The film touches on this through Hannah’s reservations and Andrew’s expectations, but it doesn’t quite know where to go beyond simple observation.
Tumbledown is a sweetly amusing and affecting movie highlighted by a lively Sudeikis and a heartfelt Hall. It trips over itself trying to balance its themes alongside the comedy and romance, but as tumbles go it’s a painless one.
The Upside: Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis; never feels the need to rush a romance; sweet and honest look at grief
The Downside: Third act tumbles; ending is far too easy