by Ken Bakely
An extraordinarily complicated situation is presented at the beginning of Aisling Chin-Yee’s The Rest of Us. Cami (Heather Graham) and her teenage daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse), who weren’t exactly on the smoothest of terms from the outset, have their lives thrown into further conflict when Craig – Cami’s ex-husband and Aster’s father – dies suddenly, and they soon must take in his widow Rachel (Jodi Balfour), and grade school-age daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). Craig was months behind on bills and house payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah with nowhere else to go when the bank forecloses on their home. What makes this situation even messier is the fact that Craig and Cami’s marriage ended when he had an affair with Rachel. The notion of the four of them having to live together – with their pre-existing conflicts and other considerations already present – is hardly ideal for anyone involved, but it seems that, until Rachel can find a new job, there are few possible alternatives. From here, Chin-Yee crafts a smart, understated, and introspective portrait of these characters. She looks at the nuances of their actions and feelings, the successes and mistakes they face, and the otherwise-unexplored baggage that they must confront. It’s all brought further to life by a quartet of solid performances from the film’s lead actors, and makes for a thoughtfully engaging study.
One thing that stands out in particular is how little time that The Rest of Us takes to tell its story (it’s only eighty minutes long). It doesn’t feel the need to round out its characters with lengthy exposition, or excessively over-explain the proceedings. In a sense, this can cut both ways, since this also means that the movie has the tendency to come off as a little too slight when considering all that goes on in it. But there are great accomplishments in what Chin-Yee’s direction and Alanna Francis’s screenplay accomplish in building the film’s world. The Rest of Us isn’t afraid to let moments and ideas linger as they are; to let scenes come and go more as snapshots, instead of forcing them into big proclamations on such broad subject matter as grief and interpersonal relationships; or, in conversations, to further the effect that here, as in real life, the words people say are not necessarily all they’re really saying. Cami, Aster, Rachel, and Talulah all process the impact of Craig’s death — the event which brings them together regarding the person who connects them all — in different ways, and the movie observes how grief is compounded atop everything that was going on beforehand. In choosing a path this winding alongside a style this select, Chin-Yee is able to guide us as viewers into the film’s settings and events without losing sight of the fine-tuned dynamics at the heart of the story.
In totality, this makes for an involving viewing experience. The Rest of Us smartly pieces together a narrative that stridently avoids pat answers or flat characterization. Various plot twists and surprises come throughout, but they’re all delivered with the same precise naturalism that the rest of the movie carries, and never feel arbitrary or overly constructed. What we learn, and what we’re meant to ponder for ourselves, is presented with evenness and finesse: not abstract for its own sake, but instead careful and reflective. And though this approach stumbles a bit by the final act, when the story wraps up with an ending that seems a little too neat and sudden (perhaps because of its concentrated runtime contrasted against its long-range approach), the film’s wise sensibilities towards its subject matter remain firm through it all. This is a sharp and perceptive portrait of the difficult and unpredictable ways that people interact and grow when brought together under even the least ideal of circumstances. The movie doesn’t ever pretend that what’s happening is preordained or easy, and it certainly doesn’t believe in a linear path towards how these characters bond. It explores their lives, separately and together, with a refreshing complexity.