In the compelling, richly acted Lullaby, painter and sculptor Andrew Levitas writes and directs a debut film about a father’s impending death that manages to take the weight of the moment seriously and not as a simple plot tool for heightened drama. Based loosely off the events surrounding his own father’s death, Levitas takes advantage of a superb ensemble to offer a film that, while sometimes conventional and overlong, has the intimacy and intelligence of a stellar stage play. In fact, given how every other scene is in the dad’s hospital room, how the story takes place over an 18-hour period and how there are suspiciously few hospital staff around, it very well could have been staged.
Levitas’ father passed away more than a decade ago, which brought the artist time to reflect about the circumstances of his life and his father’s disease. Although he shares an interest (the arts) and a religion (Judaism) with the protagonist, the shabbily dressed, patchy-bearded Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), the two could not be further alike. Levitas is a well-known figure in the New York art world who has dabbled in acting and producing. Hedlund’s Jonathan is a grumpy, short-tempered chain-smoker who never came to grips with his father, Robert’s (Richard Jenkins), cancer.
Jonathan abandoned his family and university in New York to make it as a musician on the West Coast. Now, starved for cash since his career never took off, he is probably more interested in returning to his dying father’s side at a New York hospital to hear the stipulations of the will than to spend time catching up. “You made me fly back here to watch you die?” Jonathan scoffs. “It’s not about you,” Robert says. With a crackling voice due to tape and bandage around his throat, Robert has decided that he wants to be taken off life support, just days before the Jewish holiday of Passover. That holiday, which commemorates the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, is a clever parallel to Robert’s need for his family to let him go of the pain and receive salvation in death. So, the patriarch and real estate magnate wants to gather Jonathan, his attorney daughter Karen (Jessica Brown-Findley, who does a fine job letting us forget the debacle that was Winter’s Tale) and his wife Rachel (Anne Archer) for one last Seder before the doctors pull the plug.
Lullaby has a small budget, emphasized by the lack of locations – a few hospital rooms and a chapel get the most use – but a big-name cast. The bigger the actor’s part, the finer their work. Hedlund gives his most fully realized performance to date, as a man who has never come to grips with his dad’s cancer. There are still glimmers of a connection, such as when he shoots baseball trivia at his bed-ridden dad, yearning for Robert to still be of a sound mind. However, that connection is still severed. Jonathan is quick to rage and Hedlund bottles up his character’s anger without spurring into overblown theatrics.
As the pale, bed-ridden Robert, Jenkins is disarming, showing humanity despite the agonizing pain. It is difficult to see any other actor portray a father in such a condition with the same weight and vitality as Jenkins does. Meanwhile, Anne Archer gives a searing portrayal as a woman who feels even more bedraggled than her diseased husband. “I’m just the caretaker,” she says, straining about being in and out of the hospital for months. Given the dysfunction of the family members, the actors perform with magnificent restraint, making their performances sincere instead of mawkish.
Levitas’ film also features three bigger stars, who share various Oscar nominations and one win between them: Jennifer Hudson as a sassy nurse, Terrence Howard as a nurturing doctor and Amy Adams as Emily, an old flame of Jonathan’s whose company he craves. However, the capabilities of these actors outshine the skimpiness of their roles. Adams, who is always a welcome presence, appears in a role that Levitas could have excised in an earlier draft. However, the finest performance in Lullaby comes from a relative unknown, Jessica Barden (Hanna). In a subplot that provides both the thematic weight and the much-needed levity to prop up Jonathan’s troubled relationship with his family, Barden plays Meredith, a 17-year-old child with bone marrow cancer. Her head looks like the moon, but her smile and droll spirit light her up like the stars.
Meredith and Jonathan serve each other. She gives him comfort and insight into the debilitated state of someone with a terminal illness. “My problems are not of the trust-fund variety,” Meredith tells him. “They are terminal.” He brings her company and even shares a dance, to Etta James’ “Only Time Will Tell.” The child’s cancer ward, meanwhile, is far from the weepy melodrama one would expect. It is full of mature teens, who both sigh and laugh about how they will all die virgins. Meredith is a calm, if slightly sarcastic teen – although that snide attitude is a side effect of the disease – and like the other kids in the ward, has grasped her fate with maturity instead of anxiety.
Although the settings are spare and sparse, DP Florian Ballhaus (The Book Thief) manages to divide the four main characters onto their own islands, rarely framing them in the same shot before filming them as more of a group as they come to terms with what could be Robert’s last day. (One notable photographic flourish: Jonathan’s bleary, dazed state as he walks through the hospital, oppressed by bad news and the arrival of guests he does not want to see, are filmed effectively with a wide-angle lens.)
Levitas has faith in his material, as well as the performers, and has the camera linger on the actors for longer than usual. He lets the audience into the familiar troubles with brief flashbacks, curt exchanges and pithy looks, having a few lines of dialogue and glances explain more about the relationships between the characters than have them unpack their baggage in long-winded scenes.
Lullaby also deals with an important issue not often handled in films about death and loss. Jonathan is reluctant to remain devout to his religion, which goes against his father’s wills. That schism between the parental connection to faith and the secular whims of their children is not often explored in cinema, but is handled with authenticity here. (It is a bit disorienting, though, that neither Hedlund nor Brown-Findley can master the Hebrew dialect when their characters are forced to speak the language.)
The film ends on a couple of false notes that lessen the story’s impact, such as a stiffly performed speech from Karen about why one should not have the right to pull the plug. For the most part, though, Levitas does not rush any of the family’s heated debates and arguments, and draws out the scenes after the midpoint, allowing the characters to take in each moment and grieve. With a measured pace, sensitive writing and stellar performances, Lullaby definitely has more vitality than the solemn subject matter would suggest.
With thoughtful writing and strong performances, Lullaby tackles a tough subject - the right to die with dignity - with grace, depth and emotional power.