I vividly recall the year Todd Solondz’s Happiness debuted at the Telluride Film Festival. His deadpan treatment of such sensitive subjects as pederasty and masturbation polarized the assembled moviegoers; some walked out in disgust, others stayed and were full of praise. Only a filmmaker as iconoclastic as Solondz would create a sequel twelve years later—and recast all the leading characters. Many of his films in that intervening period have been disappointing and downright strange, but Life During Wartime is exceptional…just as good as Happiness, and possibly even better.
Once again, the movie opens on a note of black comedy, as we meet the mousy character with awful taste in men played by Shirley Henderson (one of cinema’s most gifted chameleons, best known to mass audiences as—
Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series), at dinner with an ex who claims to have shed all of his egregious bad habits. She is one of three sisters who each sport a different brand of dysfunctional behavior. The straight-faced absurdity of the opening scene, along with the introduction of a surreal element (the apparition of Henderson’s deceased former boyfriend, played by Paul Reubens) gives one a sense of what’s in store.
But Solondz isn’t out for cheap laughs. We may chuckle at some of the boorish behavior and banal conversation of his characters, and even feel superior to them, as we explore their twisted family ties—between husband and wife, father and son, mother and children, and of course the three female siblings. But as the intertwining stories progress, the tone of the film subtly changes and by the end Solondz elicits real empathy for these poor souls. He disarms us as the movie builds to a poignant and moving conclusion.
The cast simply couldn’t be better, from young Dylan Riley Snyder, as the wide-eyed boy who’s nervous about his forthcoming bar mitzvah, to such stalwarts as Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Ciarán Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Renee Taylor, and Ally Sheedy, as the sister who has fled her family’s stomping ground in Florida to make her way in Hollywood.
Life During Wartime is a genuine original, a film that manages to be funny, relevant, and emotionally affecting. It’s about as far from mainstream moviemaking as one can get; it’s also one of the most satisfying and memorable pictures of the year. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.