TIFF Film Review: ‘Blackbird’ Paints a Conventional but Moving Family Portrait

Susan Sarandon attends the “Blackbird” press conference during the 2019 Toronto International Film FestivaL. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is never easy to accept the impending death of a loved one. Even more troubling is the knowledge that they have chosen to die. Following in the vein of award-winning films such as “The Sea Inside” and “Million Dollar Baby,” the controversial topic of euthanasia features prominently in “Blackbird.” A remake of a Danish film, this formulaic drama from Roger Michell likely won’t garner many accolades. But the tender performances from its gifted cast elevate it to something worth seeing.

Susan Sarandon plays terminally ill matriarch Lily, who has gathered her family ahead of a pivotal decision in her life. Suffering from a debilitating disease which will soon leave her paralyzed and unable to swallow, she plans to end her own life with dignity. Having assured the support of her family, she hopes to use the occasion to spend some final quality time together. But as the fatal moment looms, this family reunion begins to stir up hidden feelings and secrets which threaten to derail Lily’s plan.

If you’ve seen enough films about dysfunctional families, it will come as no surprise that a heated scene at the dinner table forms a crucial moment in the script. In fact, very few of the plot developments will come as a shock in this familiar take on sibling rivalries, marital struggles and familial black sheep. And while the impending euthanasia predictably divides the family members, the film’s conclusion is never in doubt.

Though the storyline is predictable, Roger Michell’s low-key direction challenges his cast to find the nuances in their characters. Sarandon is surrounded by a stellar ensemble featuring the likes of Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill and Lindsay Duncan, all of whom are up to the task. Their performances feel honest and their characters are fully realized, from Winslet’s uptight older daughter to the scene-stealing nerdiness of the son-in-law played by Rainn Wilson. And with the cast’s lived-in chemistry, we get an authentic feeling of their shared history. The confined setting of “Blackbird” may seem stagebound, but these delicate performances and the measured pacing give the storytelling a cinematic elegance.

What emerges is a sincere family portrait that touches on precious truths about the human condition. Indeed, this deceptively simple story beautifully encapsulates the complexities of life through its sense of humor, melancholy and anger towards that universal certainty – death. Families are never perfect, but the support of loved ones can prove to be the only thing that matters when you take your final breath.

“Blackbird” is seeking US distribution.

GRADE: (★★★)

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