Grief can wear many layers.
As we try to survive sadness we may reach for anything to hold onto, anyone to connect with, anyone to help us move forward. Even improbable or challenging connections can provide lifelines we desperately need.
For Sherwin, a young man in Atlanta, the grief over his wife’s sudden death is more than he can bear. At one moment this vibrant couple only sees possibilities in their lives. As they relax at home, and tickle and giggle, they look forward with energy and enthusiasm. Only concern over the cancer that has stricken her mother, and their disagreement over trying to start a family, get in the way of this couple’s optimism. Otherwise they stand on solid ground. Never can they imagine tragedy. But tragedies happen. Lives change without warning. And, one evening as Sherwin fixes dinner and waits for his wife to come home, she is killed in a car accident.
Five Nights in Maine – the first film from writer/director Maris Curran – could take a conventional approach to dealing with loss. In lesser hands, we would see scenes of emotional outburst performed by actors trying to make the most of each dramatic opportunity. But Curran proves to be a subtle filmmaker who prefers to suggest the layer, and imply the obstacles, as she explores the difficult path to healing. And she gives this story of a man’s journey an interesting twist when Sherwin chooses to visit his late wife’s mother, a bitter woman caught in her own battle against a terminal disease. With little in common – except for loving the same lady – these unlikely partners in despair search for ways to support each other yet find, moment by moment, reasons to disagree and disconnect.
The filmmaker shows remarkable restraint as these opposites resist the temptation to comfort each other. Dianne Wiest, a brilliant actress who defines subtlety on screen, only has to turn her head or raise her eyebrow to convey the layers of pain this lady experiences. We see, in her eyes, the layers of her illness as well as her sadness over her daughter’s death. We hear, in her words, the devastation of knowing she will never resolve the differences that separated them over the years. And we watch, in her physical weakness, the deterioration of disease that can make the journey to emotional health much more challenging.
With Weist, Curran finds an ideal channel for his subtle exploration of grief; with David Oyelowo, the filmmaker discovers the perfect voice for her message of loss. Together these actors make the most of the suggestions in Curran’s script without making it all feel too obvious. Never in this film do we experience an ultimate reveal that might explain the anger, never does Curran take the easy road to add a plot device to promote revelation. Life is not so tidy. And Curran, as if trying to actually reflect how healing actually occurs, reminds us how little we can control when life remains in charge.
While Five Nights in Maine may lack the explosions or special effects of most summer movies, it never lets up in the emotional heat its characters generate. The movie touches even when we try to understand what these people are feeling.
Five Nights in Maine
- Content: High. This thought-provoking look at the stages of grief reminds us no matter how we love, we are rarely prepared to say goodbye.
- Entertainment: Medium. While some may find the film slow, and others may look for obvious resolutions, the deliberate pacing works right with the depth of the content.
- Message: High. Nothing we may experience can prepare for us for when we grieve. Letting time pass may be our only way to endure.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to consider such important personal issues is worth the effort to find the film in theaters or on line.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers a meaningful opportunity to discuss issues of life and death with older children.
(Five Nights in Maine, running 82 minutes, is not rated, and contains adult language and situations. The film is available in theaters in New York City, online and at iTunes. Read about other films featuring Dianne Wiest in Arts and Leisure Online.)
Rating: 4 Popcorn Buckets
How the Movies Love Dianne Wiest
The drama of Five Nights in Maine reminds us how magnetic and meaningful an actress Dianne Wiest can be. For more than 35 years, she has graced the screen with memorable character portrayals. Here are some of my favorite moments from this most effective actress.
Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
After playing a number of small roles in films, Wiest captures the movies with her heart-breaking portrayal of the neediest of Hannah’s sisters in this warm family comedy from Woody Allen. Wiest is incandescent in her expressions of fear, hope and expectations for change in a life defined by disappointment. And, no surprise, she was named Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards.
Helen in Parenthood (1989)
While some actresses suffer after winning Oscars in the supporting category, Wiest uses the award to initiate a period of strong performances. She wins a well-deserved follow-up Oscar nomination for her touching work in this Ron Howard look at the ups and downs of raising children. Wiest is magic as a woman who tries to be patient with her children no matter how difficult they make the challenge.
Helen in Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
A few years later, Oscar number two knocks at Wiest’s door when she creates what may be the most memorable show business diva of all time in this comedy from Woody Allen. All Wiest must do is utter two words – “don’t speak” – to split the sides of even the most cynical moviegoer. The actress uses every depth of her breath to speak volumes about a complex woman while saying just two words. Unreal and unforgettable.
Louise in The Birdcage (1996)
For some reason, Oscar overlooks this gem of a comic performance as Wiest commands the screen as a mother who simply wants the best for her daughter no matter how outrageous the situation. Opposite Gene Hackman in beautifully written supporting roles (penned by the great Elaine May) Wiest is funny, touching and marvelous as she invests every part of her comic self to create a character of substance and subtlety.
Diane in The Horse Whisperer (1998)
As if to remind us how powerful a dramatic actress she can be, Wiest scores as the possessive woman who tries to protect a man who may be emotionally available. With Robert Redford as a man who can do magic with horses, and Kristin Scott Thomas as a visitor with an uncertain agenda, Wiest grounds the film in the common sense that only an experienced heart can bring to a complex situation. The actress brings depth to a captivating film.
Nat in Rabbit Hole (2010)
Once again, Oscar overlooks a strong supporting performance that deserves to be remembered. Wiest is moving and memorable as a mother trying to help her daughters through crisis and challenge, moments and memories. She reminds us that, no matter the size of the role, she will bring power to any performance that will be admired long after the credits roll. This is one of her best.
As we savor the work of Dianne Wiest in Five Nights in Maine, this remarkable actress reminds us how much she adds to any film she makes.
See you at the movies.