One of the best films I’ve seen at SXSW is “Good Night" by Sean H.A. Gallagher, a striking ensemble piece that looks at one night in the lives of a group of thirtysomethings as they unwittingly assemble for an announcement from their friend Leigh (Adriene Mischler): Her leukemia, which has been in remission for the past three years, has returned. It’s not going away.
Leigh and husband Winston (Jonny Mars) invite their nine closest friends over for Leigh’s birthday party. It’s a fairly regular soiree, with the couples chatting and laughing, bringing up topics light (marijuana), serious if humorously broached (the World Trade Center attacks) and awkward (a lawyer, played by Alex Karpovsky, works 60-75 hours a week, while his wife works even longer hours; they give strained grins and say little to each other).
But some aspects of the night are strange: Winston has invited Leigh’s longtime ex-boyfriend to the celebration, and Leigh’s birthday cake leaves everyone feeling a little, well, high. Leigh finally reveals the somber news of her terminal illness. Stunned silence fills the room, followed by confused protests. “So what’s the next step?” her brother pleads, referring to a battle he can’t admit has been lost. And then, a funny thing happens. Everyone slowly, surely shakes off their glumness, and the night continues with dancing, a late-night run for munchies, gallivanting in the street and nearby park, flirtation and sex. After all, it’s a party.
The most elegant directorial moments in “Good Night” are flashbacks given to Winston and Leigh that explain the lead-up to her announcement. Accented by a melancholic score, we learn that Winston and Leigh bought their house in the suburbs a few years prior. Then the trouble came. Leigh began throwing up nightly, with painful sores covering her mouth and extended stays in the hospital permanently putting on hold the newlyweds’ plans. Their hopes to have children went by the wayside as they collected every fund they had (and more than a few funds they didn’t have) to put towards an expensive blood transfusion uncovered by Winston’s health plan.
Winston, ruminating on his and Leigh’s problems, blames the house. Though the house didn’t give Leigh cancer, it is part of a greater societal structure critiqued with unflinching verve throughout “Good Night.” The film opens with shots of suburban Austin homes with “For Sale” and “Foreclosure” signs ominously decorating the grid-like front lawns. The American path to happy normalcy is paved with money, and when the money is difficult to pry loose, the path becomes paved with debt. Living incurs debt, getting sick incurs debt, and death leaves behind those still living with more debt.
I’m as wary of reunion-oriented films as I am of cancer dramas. But Gallagher is able to render a portrait largely and absorbingly unaffected by the movie conventions that often plague those over-visited genres. The costuming and set design excel because both deftly communicate “average.” The house is bland, the outfits and hairstyles are those one could see at any mall. The cinematography, by Jason Eitlebach, jiggles randomly and has that sickly neon hue of fluorescent lightbulbs. Unremarkable conversations overlap and flow into one another.
The alchemy is in the editing, and the uniformly strong performances from the nine actors. Moments are intuitively cut away from to avoid sentimentality: Characters weep, and some eventually bow out from the evening, exhausted, to return to their lives. Meanwhile, other moments are unexpectedly cross-cut: The film’s best-placed shot is one hand itsy-bitsy-spidering its way into another hand. Importantly, Gallagher and his fine cast have a sense of humor, which remains fiercely intact until the denouement. This is what gives the film surprisingly sharp clarity. An illness in the body emerges, a sickness in the country's system rears its head at the worst time, and the only thing left is to laugh with friends into the long, long night.