BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE SEA IS ALL I KNOW

By • Dec 15th, 2011 •

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The beautifully titled and cinematically striking short THE SEA IS ALL I KNOW is almost unbearably sad. As its star, Melissa Leo, said in a press conference following the screening I attended, it is about a subject that is as “unspeakable” as it is common: the illness and death of a beloved family member. Having recently been through this experience with my mother, I am particularly attuned to the universality of this condition–almost all of us will end up as either the caretaker or the one who is cared for; many of us will experience both roles. What makes THE SEA IS ALL I KNOW even more heartbreaking, however, is that it is about parents enduring the demise of a child.

Sara (Melissa Leo) welcomes her terminally ill adult daughter Angelina (Kelly Hutchinson) back into her old bedroom. Although the doctor observes that Angelina would be better off in the hospital, Sara wants to give her the succor of mother love and the comfort of memory, stuffed animals from childhood; a window view of the sea. We first see Sonny (Peter Gerety), Angelina’s father and Sara’s estranged husband, afloat on the Long Island Sound. He is a fisherman and more comfortable on a boat than he is dealing with Angelina’s illness (it’s a line of his dialogue that gives the film its title), but his need to spend time with his precious daughter overcomes his fear and reluctance. Angelina asks Sara and Sonny to assist her in committing suicide. Both parents grapple with anger, guilt, and loss of faith. In the end, their daughter’s bravery in the face of death not only convinces them to help her, it also helps them to forgive themselves.

The locations, art direction, and cinematography of this film give it a melancholy beauty, enriching the story telling. The small, cluttered house is the archive of a once happy family. As Melissa Leo said after the screening, “that window in the girl’s bedroom seemed so problematic. It was a double paned window that had all this condensation, but somehow Jordan [the director] invited that in, to be an integral and vastly important part of the production.” And it’s true; when the camera tracks Angelina peering through that window–her view of the sunny day and the sparkling water marred by smudges, glare, and her own reflection–we get a sense of what it’s like to be looking out at the “regular” world from within that marred and weakened body. Another lovely moment: the camera watching the clock on the sickroom wall; watching the time slowly and yet inexorably run out. The trees outside continuously rustle in the sea breeze, oblivious to the grief within.

The three actors are truthful and moving in their roles, and they look and behave as if they are a family unit. Their physicality tells us more than words can about their feelings and their relationships. When Angelina arches in pain, Sara embraces her and holds her to her breast, as if the young woman had regressed to infancy. Sonny puts the heaviness of his emotions into the way he drags a fishnet out of the water, into the savagery with which he guts the fish.

It’s impressive when a film this short can feel so layered and so complete. If I have one caveat, it’s that I don’t think the film ends up being about quite what the people who made it think it’s about. The tagline on the official poster states: Love never fails. At the press Q&A, Melissa Leo said, “As much as it is about the passing of our daughter, it is about the reuniting of us, of our love.” And Jordan Bayne, the filmmaker, said, “Somehow the daughter’s dying was a healing for them. And brought them back around to seeing each other for maybe what they originally saw each other for.”

In the film, the estranged couple does come together in a moment of grief, which turns into sexual passion. It’s not overplayed in the film, and it seems like a very natural unfolding of events. But as it is played, I am not really sure how hopeful it is. That it is a momentary assertion of the life force over death, yes, I can see that. But if it’s meant to indicate that this couple has overcome its mistrust of each other and through the daughter’s death will gain a new lease on life, well, I don’t buy it. Although I guess there is something hopeful about a fractured family coming together to ease each other’s unbearable pain.

A short film is like a poem, the structure needs to be in place, but it doesn’t need to be filled out with the details of a novel. As Melissa Leo said, “this is a thirty minute film, there’s not a feature here. Just like in the O’Henry story ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ you don’t want that story to be longer than the seven/eight pages that it is. That’s it. You find out what matters to these people, and you get to the middle where they both make their so beautiful mistake, and the end when they find out that each of them has made this grand and beautiful mistake for the other. That is all you need. . . That’s probably the most important thing about filmmaking, that you really know what your story is, and you restrict it to only the things that are necessary to tell that story.” THE SEA IS ALL I KNOW is a complete, short story about loss–and, perhaps, a little hope.

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