Life During Wartime
Directed by: Todd Solondz
Cast: Shirley Henderson, Paul Reubens, Alison Janney, Dylan Riley Snyder, Chris Marquette
Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins
Release Date: August 6, 2010 (Limited)
PLOT: Twelve years after their father (Hinds) is sent to jail for child molestation, two brothers (Snyder, Marquette) struggle with the idea of forgiveness while suffering through the pain of remembering.
WHO’S IT FOR? While this film can stand on its own, those who have already seen Solondz’s Happiness would be at great advantage to re-familiarize themselves with that film’s characters, so that the actor switch-up of this “quasi-sequel” to that 1998 film makes a bit more sense. For those new to Solondz, Life During Wartime is for those who appreciate dark comedies that can plunge into the heaviest shades of black in order to test one’s potential to sympathize with characters of various serious flaws.
EXPECTATIONS: I had been waiting for this movie for about three years. My anticipation for this movie was heightened when it received critical praise at a few festivals, not to mention the award for “Best Screenplay” from Cannes.
Shirley Henderson as Joy: As with Happiness, Joy is arguably the center of the movie. Also with that film, she is not meant to be the most important part of the story. Henderson makes the character Joy even more vulnerable, especially with her frail physique and meek high-pitched voice. She is compelling in her own sequences, but is notably overshadowed by other characters or performances.
Paul Reubens as Andy: Continuing the role that Jon Lovitz briefly played in Happiness, Reubens uses the tender part of his acting palette to provide excellent visual sorrow as he haunts Joy in a few sporadic dreams. A hallucination, his brief part ushers in a great amount of tangible guilt for which Joy must deal with for the entire movie.
Alison Janney as Trish: Although this role is played by the great Alison Janney, it is not meant to be a large part of the Life During Wartime story. This might explain the lack of presence she has here, despite the headlining spot she has in the previews (which make her look like a comically bad mother). As with Cynthia Stevenson’s performance of the same character in Happiness, her hunky-dory suburban disillusion is compelling, but she becomes easily overshadowed by those who more directly represent the difficult topics at hand.
Dylan Riley Snyder as Timmy: At the heart of this entire movie is this young man’s emotional journey to understand, and possibly forgive the pain that has been dropped on him by his parents. His look is classic American kid stuff – a high-pitched kid with freckles and a dimpy haircut. But his curiosity about his situation makes him modern – and fascinating. The most effective scenes saddle this character with the heaviest drama, which the young Riley Snyder handles almost perfectly. The little man can certainly carry the weight.
Chris Marquette as Billy: The actor who once gave Fanboys a dramatic edge has only one scene in Life During Wartime, but it is another pivotal moment to the film’s entire tone. Playing the part of a college kid whose friends were raped by his father ten years ago, Marquette is a soft-spoken victim of memory abuse, who despite allowing the idea of forgiving into his conscience, can’t hide the pain that he has lived with for a decade. Along with Hinds, Marquette plays their reunion with natural tension, regret, and a slight element of love into the mix.
Ciaran Hinds as Bill Maplewood: The convicted pedophile released from prison floats around this story like a ghost whose last hope at life is being forgiven. At the same time, Hinds’ tragic character carries the second question of whether people really change. He shuffles through this movie and brings the pacing to a delicate speed, but represents a remarkable turn in the entire way that the universe of Solondz rotates.
TALKING: Compared to earlier Solondz movies, this film is told with notably less awkward confrontations. A scene in the motherly Trish discusses with her son Timmy what it’s like for a woman to be “wet” actually feels a bit out of place here, whereas in a movie like Happiness it would be in a cozy home. Regardless, the dialogue this round has a deeper cut, one that is sure to leave a mark on its audience. It’s only fitting that the facially scarred actor Michael Kenneth Williams delivers the most shocking line, “War is evil … but what you did is worse.”
SIGHTS: The bright setting of Florida (which is actually Puerto Rico) is captured with heavy contrast and accents on the peachy colors of the sunny suburbs. In a moment of “déjà vu” that connects Life During Wartime to Happiness, the introduction is shot very similarly to the beginning of the 1998 film, and much of the dialogue in the emotional exchange stays the same.
SOUNDS: A mellow title song by Devendra Banhart and Beck plays during the credits, with the somber lyrics written by Solondz himself. The words in the song toy with the idea of forgiveness “You cannot forgive/what can’t be forgot,” summarizing the clashing ideas stated by the characters in the film. A beautiful title tune, and also the movie’s only striking musical moment.
BEST SCENE: The entire essence of Solondz takes a turn even shocking for his followers when Timmy talks with his mother and Harvey Korman about the possibility of forgiving, but not forgetting.
ENDING: “I don’t care about freedom. I just want my father.”
QUESTIONS: As with all of Solondz’s films, there are many questions. You can read me try to tackle just a few of them HERE in my interview with Solondz himself.
REWATCHABILITY: While Life During Wartime can be understood in one viewing, a second viewing would probably bring an audience member even deeper into its subtext. It would likely still be a fulfilling experience.
With whatever intentions Todd Solondz may have had with the tragic Happiness, it is fair to say that he nearly destroyed his characters, however beloved they may be. He left them in a difficult suburban limbo after putting them through tales of realized sexual taboos, and the same can be said for his audience. Now he has returned to these characters, not with the aim to further demonize them, (as someone disillusioned from humans would do) but to expand the potential of which to explore the deeper parts of human nature, in his most soulful film yet.
Life During Wartime is a shocking film that does not gross out its audience, as Happiness may have done in a more forward fashion. Instead, it realizes our own issues of guilt in its own astounding way, and in a post 9/11 society, with characters that seem to be needing the gift of forgiveness the most. A writer/director that once embarrassed real-life archetypes (something that divided an audience) by realizing dysfunction as natural is now pointing even the darkest characters onto a path of redemption.
Noticeably more mellow than any of his previous works, Life During Wartime is certainly a movie with life, and bits of comedy. But the resonating aspect lies in its delicate nature. Long after it is done completing the story of Happiness, it haunts its viewers afterward like a ghost.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10