Life During Wartime 10/09/16 3:26
Life During Wartime starts with a middle-aged woman named Joy, played by Shirley Henderson, a neurotic social worker married to a suicidal, sexually disturbed man. To take a break and reevaluate, she visits her mother in Florida, which is also where her older sister Trish, played by Allison Janney, lives. Trish is the kind of person who tries to pretend that everything is ok even when it isn't, and she's wild about her new boyfriend Harvey, just because he seems so "normal." Of her three kids, the middle child Timmy, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah, is the most troubled. He finds out that his father, whom Trish told him was dead, is actually a pedophile serving time in prison, and this of course prompts anxious questions. In fact, the father, Bill, played by Ciaran Hinds, has just been released from prison and is returning to the world with a barely concealed dread of giving in to his sickness again. Meanwhile Joy keeps being visited by visions of a former boyfriend, played by Paul Reubens, expressing a combination of neediness and hostility that is unnerving.
As you can tell from this plot summary, Solondz's world is a dark one. He doesn't play any of this for camp like John Waters, or for savage humor like the Coen Brothers. Instead there's a burning core of grief and sadness that underlies the film, a weight of guilt that is expressed through the theme of forgiveness. The need to understand what forgiveness is, and if it's possible, is expressed by almost every major character, either directly or through implication, and it's also the need for connection in the midst of a reality that seems unbearable. The tenderness of the film's sensibility is connected to woundedness—each sister enacts a different kind. Joy is apologizing for her existence, Trish tries to keep everything under control, while a third sister Helen, played by Ally Sheedy, is an abusive narcissist who likes to play the victim. The characters have appeared earlier, played by different actors, in Solondz's 1998 film Happiness, but you don't need to have seen that film to understand this one. We've gone to war since then, and life in America is depicted by Solondz as a comedy of unexpressed loss, in which war is normalized and banished to the back of our minds, affecting us in ways we won't admit. In the end, the painfully honest Timmy, the abandoned and abused child, gets the last word on all of this, a fitting end to this strangely moving experience.