Directed by Andrew Lancaster
Starring: Harrison Gilbertson, Geena Davis, Harry Cook, Joel Tobeck
Grade: C -
In 2002’s The Hours troubled authoress Virginia Woolf states that she is killing off the heroine of her most famous book because “someone has to die, in order that the rest of us should value life more.” Don’t be fooled by the breezy title; Andrew Lancaster, helming his first feature-length project, “Accidents Happen,” has made a film that re-iterates a similar theory, placing tragedy at the epicentre of familial strife, and the catalyst for emotional blockading and forced self-evaluation.
“Accidents Happen” introduces us to the seemingly happy Conway family, consisting of mother, father, and four young children, whose routine is abruptly halted when their car collides with another. We aren’t shown the immediate aftermath of the event, and instead the film jumps forward eight years to a point in time where the surviving members of the C0nway clan are being forced to address the impact of the accident on their lives, and search for some form of closure.
The implications of the crash are that Linda, the Conway daughter, has died, and that one of the sons, Gene, is in a vegetative state in hospital. Gloria (Davis) and husband Ray (Tobeck) have also since divorced, provoking bitterness towards Ray’s new fiancée Becky. By default, youngest son Billy Conway (Gilbertson) is the principal figure in the film, as everyone else in his family are either voiceless or unapproachably volatile. His unflinchingly direct mother, plagued by a medical condition as a result of the accident, hates everything around her; his alcoholic older brother is a destructive force within the family. Billy, much less vocal about his feelings, becomes caught in the crossfire of all these frayed relationships, but also must deal with the blame of his own wrongdoings.
If this all sounds unbearably overwrought, then that’s a fair assessment; there are plenty of ways to instigate familial issues without resorting to such brazen attempts at melodrama. Writer Brian Carbee has approached a heavy subject matter by giving the characters irredeemable flaws and grating oversensitivity, to the point where it’s relatively impossible to see this family dynamic as genuine, or even credible. “Accidents Happen” has a difficult time finding fresh ways to articulate the perceived tropes of guilt-laden grief, content to follow the black-comedy style of accentuating the stony-faced, bitter persona that tragedy can invoke. There’s a tendency towards chronicling grief through bitingly-honest quips – particularly courtesy of Davis’s Gloria. One feels that the film is striving to be The Upside of Anger, in terms of viewing standoffish, comic hostility as a substitute for grief, but the one-liners and general limitations of Gloria as a person (she’s more of a badass sister to her kids than a mother) just make the entire setup feel infantile. Davis herself opts for the Julia Roberts method of rabid, quickfire delivery, but has neither the charisma nor the material to pull it off.
As a framing device, the crash itself doesn’t prove effectual enough in binding the family together, so it’s very difficult to gauge what might have gone on in the eight years that have passed. “Accidents Happen” does everything it can to feign bravery (and even novelty) by making none of its main characters particularly sympathetic amidst their seriously unenviable state of collapse, but then expects us to rally for them in its final act. Examples of clinical Solondzian humour litter the film, almost as if it’s satirising guilt itself; maintaining a coolly distant but assuredly fervent perspective on dysfunctionality. When the script lurches towards staging misfortune to introduce its ruminative philosophies on loss and blame, is where it gets particularly schematic, embellishing poignancy in an unmistakably conventional style.
Lancaster does manage to build a community around these characters which harks back to the 1970s, in the way that Linklater’s Dazed and Confused did. Youths engage in boredom-fuelled acts of minor, concentrated criminality, while struggling for affection or a sense of purpose. And while it’s true that this makes “Accidents Happen” slightly more interesting as a generational conversation piece, it would be generous to suggest that it takes advantage of the era, much more adept at providing a soundtrack than connecting this pocket of time to Billy’s legitimate concerns. A redundant, pompous voice-over occasionally chimes in to heighten importance; shots of floating fragments of shattered glass act as emblems of transition – but the question remains: what has this film, with its fleeting, commonplace title, really told us about blame or acceptance?
“Accidents Happen” appears perfectly committed towards alienating its audience at first, but falls back on itself, reverting to encourage emotional identification through climactic, wrenching clichés. Lancaster’s film is murky, certainly, but fatefully not involving enough – a pallid version of Running with Scissors that never really clicks, and can’t fulfil the cutting personality intoned in the frosty dialogue and effacing actions of its disconnected troupe. It may bear enough of the hallmarks of a self-destructive family dramedy, but scratch beneath the surface and this is an ill-conceived genre film effort.