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Review: Rory Kennedy's 'Ethel' -- A Tribute to a Mother and Survivor

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood October 16, 2012 at 12:00PM

Documentarian Rory Kennedy is the youngest of Senator Robert Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy's 11 children, born seven months after her father's assassination in 1968. Never having known her father, except via the scratchy footage of history, home movies and stories from family members, yet also inevitably identified as a "daughter of Robert Kennedy," she set out to make a film about the unsung leading influence in her life -- her mother.
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Often framed in the footage next to the strong-jawed, hypnotically watchable duo of John and Robert, Ethel is poised to be upstaged, but Rory's effective focus doggedly steers our eyes in the direction of the cute, vivacious young woman with the high forehead, large teeth and artless lack of self-seriousness. That politicians' wives need boundless energy is a no-brainer. Indeed, this is one of the recurring points of admiration from the Kennedy children's Greek chorus of praise for their self-effacing mother. We learn that young Ethel was a born athlete (unlike Robert), a self-professed fan of the campaign trail's strenuous demands (also unlike Robert), an unwavering hostess and -- and! -- pregnant for 99 months of her life. She also endured an inordinate amount of loss in her lifetime that would break many people. A plane crash took her parents, assassinations took her brother-in-law and husband, and a drug overdose and skiing accident, respectively, took her sons David and Michael.  

During Rory's interview, Ethel's response to this haunting streak of bad fortune is plain, almost delivered with a shrug: "Nobody gets a free ride." Indeed, present-day Ethel seems to have kept the brush-your-knees-off strength her children describe from their upbringing, if the buoyancy that once defined her character has faded. She's reluctant to talk about herself, and even more so to take credit for raising eleven children. She says something interesting about her late husband to Rory, that "nothing came naturally to Daddy, he had to struggle for everything." Though Ethel, like her brother-in-law John, was more at ease with the relentless social aspects of politics, in her daughter's film she's confronted with the thing that doesn't come naturally to her: accepting solo recognition.

"Ethel" is, essentially, a tribute. While watching it, I found myself thinking of another, better documentary, Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell." Polley, also the youngest child of a sizeable brood, similarly interviews her array of siblings and parents, but as a means of probing her family, willfully finding the bad along with the good, the secrets and lies along with the admiration and love. This isn't in Rory Kennedy's sights, as she opts instead for a pointedly rose-colored view of her mother and father. I wanted something meatier, not in the scandal-ridden or morbid-curiosity sense, but in terms of a complex portrait of a woman inside a complex family -- perhaps the most complex of 20th-century American history. Yet some people have greatness and pain steeped so sharply and publically in their lineage, that a hug feels better, and in certain cases more appropriate, than yet another magnifying glass. It isn't hurting anybody.

"Ethel" debuts October 18 at 9pm on HBO. The film screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to play at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival. Read more about Ethel and Rory Kennedy in our coverage of the TCA.

This article is related to: Reviews, HBO, Documentary, Ethel

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.