The ultra prolific British helmer Michael Winterbottom has now made twenty films since his debut, “Butterfly Kiss,” in 1995. His eclectic creative appetites and peripatetic energy has seen the restless director take on a disparate array of projects from moody sci-fi ("Code 46"), pulpy noir ("The Killer Inside Me"), a post-modern music-scene saga ("24 Hour Party People") a western ("The Claim") and many, many more genres including documentaries as well.
So for his latest trick, it’s perhaps no surprise that Winterbottom has taken on another interesting experiment -- this time a sprawling family drama set over five Christmases in rural Scotland. Commissioned by Channel 4 and shot in two week periods over five years, "Everyday" employs four real-life siblings (Shaun, Katrina, Stephanie, and Robert Kirk) to play the sons of Karen (Shirley Henderson) and Ian (John Simm), her MIA husband, and chronicles the life of this family literally watching the children grow up in front of the camera.
But family life isn't so simple. Ian is serving a five year stint in prison so Karen is forced to be a single mom looking over a lively little brood of children. Lonely, and struggling on her own, but still as much a resilient rock as she can be under the circumstance, Karen spends most of the her and the kids' free time going to the local prison for visits.
Karen does odd jobs to survive (retail work, bartending) and the kids attend school and lead relatively normal lives aside from the monthly visits to prison. However, the distance and pain of separation actually gets worse in the later years when Dad is given permission for extended day and then weekend visits with the family. These times are loving, celebratory and welcoming, but going back to daily grind of separated life is deeply painful for everyone involved. Dad is back in their lives and everyone is happy, but when reality creeps in, the abrupt disconnection from renewed family life is emotionally brutal.
Along the years, Karen takes on a companion who’s not so much a lover, but a family friend. Ian is slapped with an minor extended sentence for trying to smuggle in hash, but generally the conflicts and problems simmer at low stakes. And this is perhaps where the film will divide people. One half will decry the film saying nothing really happens, and one half that will respond to the film’s rich emotional and interior life. There’s also something admirable about the director’s eagerness not to invent some gigantic, movie-like obstacle and hew much closer to a palable reality.
Documentary-like with an observational and patient eye (perhaps too patient), “Everyday” is long, perhaps too long. At two hours, the picture is slow paced with again, seemingly minor stakes, but Winterbottom’s composure pays off in emotionally rewarding dividends. Doubly interesting is that the film was commissioned originally as a look at the prison system, but Winterbottom’s understated examination of this subject goes far beyond.
The standout is easily Shirley Henderson. She is particularly excellent in the mostly loyal and loving wife role, trying to keep the family running while the father-figure-free boys get in trouble at school. “Why did you do this to us?,” Karen says, weeping through tears, while lying prostrate on Ian just after having sex with him. It is an utterly devastating moment and defines the film’s most heartrending emotional sequences.
Perhaps too preoccupied with the mundanity of “Everyday” daily life, this is part of the point. Winterbottom is exploring the daily grind of adulthood and parenthood and how it weighs down the soul, and exhausts us. Though some audiences will just feel the fatigue. Perhaps unsettling to some is the lack of practical struggles Karen faces. Most single moms raising four children on what couldn’t be more than a shoestring budget would likely go crazy. But the picture chooses to portray Karen’s struggle in a more quiet and slowly eroding manner.
Practically speaking, “Everyday” faces an uphill climb with accessibility and it’s likely going to land with a small arthouse distributor, or if it’s lucky, someone like IFC Films. But while not as involving as it could be to mainstream audiences, Winterbottom’s picture still feels like an important project worth making, an interesting experiment and an emotionally resonant film that should sit well with patient viewers and cinephiles. [B]