SCREENED AT THE 2004 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Some movies want us to grieve. Others are completely comfortable just grieving by themselves. Some films want to be dangerous. Others just want to hint at danger and leave us wondering. Bereft is some of the former and even more of the other. It takes us into a grieving process and then scuttles us into believing we’ve walked into a Lynchian surreal scape. It creeps up on us and has us in our grasps. But just as its primed to deliver the knockout punch, it pulls back and falters up to the finish.Vinessa Shaw stars as Molly. Her husband has died in a car accident and she spends most of her days walking (now fearful of cars) and trying to capture his image in photographs as she imagines him frequently in the same room. Her family isn’t much for opening up to talk about problems. Dad (Edward Herrmann) is a jovial near-alcoholic who is normally there to placate his daughters when Mom (Marsha Mason) forces an opinion on them or says something stupid.
Molly is intrigued with two homes en route to her job at a one-hour photo, which she uses to fund (sometimes with five-fingers) her amateur photography. One is a lovely white-and-red trim with an inhabitant she hides from and purports to loathe. The other is a less classy shelter where the oddly birthmarked Denis (Tim Blake Nelson) has the actions of a 12-year old and the conspiratorial views of an uneducated ne’er-do-well. He lives with his Uncle (Tim Daly), who is hardly the portrait of a responsible guardian.
Their friendship is as unlikely as a swan and a hippopotamus, but we mistake her kleptomania for thrill seeking and it turns out they have at least one thing in common. It takes a while for this to begin, let alone leave enough time for it to evolve, but Peter Ferland’s script doesn’t shift gears into some false unrequited healing romance. Instead we go further into Molly’s psyche where memories merge with the present and we’re kept off guard as to what we’re witnessing and what we’ve already witnessed. Her photos change from landscapes to interiors. Her chances develop into danger. The sorrow doesn’t just melt away but increases in her and in us, bringing us to an understanding for what is driving Molly right up to the edge.
Once Molly reaches it in a disturbing plateau, she comes to term almost instantly and we’re ready to let go with her as all the pieces come into place. Our emotions are on the border ready to be unleashed and then...a speech. Not a tearful unleashing nor a moralistic preachfest, but a rather simplified and incredibly ill-timed explanation at the family dinner table coupled with Mark Snow’s once beautifully melancholy, but now overbearing, score. So out-of-place and out-of-tune with the rest of the film that we now feel her family’s uncomfortableness instead of Molly’s unhappiness. It also makes us wonder how a self-proclaimed caring mother wouldn’t have been over to her daughter’s house in over a year. And that’s not what we should be thinking about at this juncture.
Shaw is a natural beauty and has enormous presence on screen, but in her first major lead she is forced to mask most of her emotions and its sometimes hard to tell if its good acting or bad acting. Nelson is great as the off-kilter man-child with a bit of a crush on Molly, making us equally sympathetic and fearful of where his actions may take him. Ditto for co-director Daly as the overly persuasive Uncle. Herrmann does a little less eloquent take on his Gilmore Girls patriarch and Mason tries too hard for the Ordinary People version of Mary Tyler Moore. Six Feet Under’s Michael C. Hall does solid work as the frankly rude potential suitor of Molly’s.Bereft will be a bit too sullen for some and find its storyline a bit slowgoing for their patience. No one ever said grieving was an immediate process and the filmmakers effectively manage to stir many of ours at different intervals and never when we might expect. That causes them to overreach just a bit and leaves them painted in a corner for how to wrap things up. Its conclusion is unsatisfying and probably undeserving for at least one of the characters leaving us wondering why we were grieving at all and was it worth it?