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There’s a scene at the beginning of Robert Schwartzman The good half this encapsulates why the film, despite its good intentions, struggles to work. Renn (Nick Jonas), a 28-year-old writer living in Los Angeles, has returned to Cleveland for his mother’s funeral. He’s in the kitchen of his father’s house (his parents were divorced) when his father, Darren, (Matt Walsh) runs into him looking for something to drink. They pour each other some tequila and get to the awkward job of confronting their emotions.
Darren is the kind of father who searches the internet for answers. He has searched the web for tips on how to console loved ones after a loss and repeats the generic lessons verbatim. “I feel like I’m letting you down,” Darren says when he realizes that clichés aren’t helping his son. “I feel I should quote Thoreau.”
The good half
Struggle to connect.
Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Nick Jonas, Brittany Snow, David Arquette, Alexandra Shipp, Matt Walsh, Elisabeth Shue
Director: Robert Schwartzmann
Screenwriter: Brett Ryland
1 hour and 40 minutes
“The guy from the woods?” says Renn, confused.
Now, we don’t know much about Renn or her relationship with Darren at this point in the movie. But we do know that the young man has a passion for writing, that he won short story prizes at school (as evidenced by various ephemera in his childhood room), and that his mother urged him never to give up on his creative ambitions. Writing is clearly of great importance to Renn, even if the type he does is only vaguely indicated. So it’s hard to imagine him referring to Thoreau as “the boy from the woods,” a descriptor that, at best, implies a bewildering lack of recognition.
This problem is not unique to Renn. Many of the characters from The good half act in ways that don’t always make sense. Part of this is by design: the film, written by Brett Ryland, is about pain and all its peculiarities, about how experience distorts daily life, dividing one’s existence into two parts: the years before a loss and the years after. These people, distraught over the death of their matriarch (an underused Elisabeth Shue in flashbacks), are expected to not always be legible. But it’s harder to excuse how shallow they feel, which creates friction within the film and makes it harder to submit to its sentimentality.
The good half opens with Renn on a flight to Cleveland, where she meets Zoey (Alexandra Shipp), a therapist who is on her way to a professional conference in the area. She has a fear of flying, so she stretches their conversations with pointed questions and clever comments to distract herself. The predictable trajectory of their relationship — later, Renn will find Zoey as a reliable confidante — would be easier to bear if either of them felt convincing as a character. But we don’t spend enough time with Zoey here, or later in the film, to understand her motivations. Her interactions with Renn feel too rote, and it’s hard to believe their relationship is anything more than a plot device.
The film feels freer and more authentic when Renn is reunited with her family and joins the effort to arrange the funeral. Her sister, Leigh (Brittany Snow), has already started planning the shoot with her mother’s ex-husband, Rick (David Arquette). Renn and Leigh have a frosty relationship instigated by their mother’s favoritism and exacerbated by Renn’s evasiveness. She avoids her sister’s calls and rarely visits when her mother is undergoing aggressive cancer treatment in the hospital. Leigh berates her brother for her jokes, which she uses strategically to repress any true feelings. The brothers drive through town completing various to-dos, each of which clarifies their relationship to pain.
Through a series of sharp scenes — buying a coffin, putting together a eulogy with a priest (Stephen Park), organizing his mother’s closet — Ryland exposes the strangeness and humor inherent in the rituals of death. There’s a charming quality to these scenes, which are underpinned by the cast’s sharp comedic timing. (Jonas, whose performance falters at other times, keeps pace here.)
It’s disappointing when The good half reduces your momentum. Jagged transitions and an excessive use of slow motion and needle drop moments contribute to the overall roughness. Time that could have been spent further detailing these characters, fleshing out their motivations, and exploring the emotional ambiguities and grief-induced ambivalences is spent on distracting filler moments. There’s a limit to how many times we want to see Renn, frowning, cross a room while a wistful pop tune plays in the background.
Those scenes, with their video clip banality, too often interrupt critical moments in character development. Just when we might begin to understand Leigh as more than Renn’s foil or Zoey as more than just a love interest, we find ourselves left out, subject to more forced sentimentality. The cumulative effect is to distance us from these people and their problems, making it difficult to genuinely connect The good half.