Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Movie Review (EIFF): ‘The Bright Side’ is a Life-Affirming Take on Death

Director: Ruth Meehan
Writers: Jean Pasley, Ruth Meehan
Stars: Gemma-Leah Devereux, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Karen Egan, Derbhle Crotty, Siobhan Cullen, Derbhle Crotty

Plot: A cynical stand-up comedian is diagnosed with breast cancer and decides to die, but as she meets 4 fellow breast cancer patients, she begins to question her beliefs.


There may be no one better at judging death than the Irish. Throughout its history the people of Ireland have suffered immense tragedy; its recent history marred by civil war and strife; its past blighted by famine and colonialism. Yet the Irish have an incredible sense of humor, dryly tipping off the Grim Reaper with an anecdote or quip, mining pathos in the morbid. Everyone fears death, but on the Emerald Isle they know how to give the middle finger to it as well.

It’s in this rich vein that Ruth Meehan makes her fantastic debut feature, The Bright Side. While dealing with heavy material – that in other hands, or cultures for that matter, could’ve been a far starker experience – Meehan finds wonderful depth to her characters, often emphasizing the absurdity of life and the tough spirit it takes to see it through. Instead of a deathly tone, perhaps introspective and emotionally draining, we’re treated instead to dick jokes, talking breasts, pot brownies, and brightly colored wigs. It would take a hard heart to come out of this experience without feeling uplifted.

Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is a stand-up comedian struggling with life. She is cynical, world-weary, and suicidal. She muddles through the day with a mix of casual sex and an addiction to prescription drugs, which she procures through the help of an illegally obtained doctor’s prescription pad. Early scenes of Kate’s stand-up routine – typically sarcastic, abrasive, and tinged with a bitterness that tell of deeper issues – fill the audience in on her early life: a father who seemed to care very little about her and a growing sense of self-loathing guided her, and now in adulthood, she sees no reason to live, but can’t go through with the act of taking her life. Her comedy is taken from her failed social life: an inability to form relationships, or perhaps just bad choices in men, a caustic relationship with her mother. She is constantly on guard and defensive, ready to fight everyone and anyone she encounters, including her pharmacist who is beginning to realize he’s been conned into dispensing drugs Kate doesn’t need.

Everything changes after a fall from a trampoline results in bruised ribs and a breast cancer diagnosis. While at first stunned by the diagnosis, Kate begins to see it as a “guilt-free way out” of life. She promises her worried brother she’ll go through with the chemotherapy but secretly opts out of the mastectomy which would save her life if the chemo should work. She begins her treatment alongside a group of women, most of whom are far more positive about life than Kate herself. As she begins to integrate within the group and grow closer with the other women, Kate begins to find there are more reasons to stay alive than she initially thought.

The plot from hereon out is typical: Kate finds a new lust for life among her friends, learning to appreciate things she failed to do before. However, even though you may know where the story is going, that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the journey. Each of the women involved are wonderful in their own rights: Fiona (Karen Egan) is perennially upbeat and positive, but ignores her own feelings about mortality; Helen (Derbhle Crotty) spent the majority of her life in the closet and had only come out a few years before her diagnosis, which effectively stopped her first opportunity to explore her sexuality;  Roisin (Barbara Brennan) is the wise old mother of the group, deeply religious and more concerned about how her husband will survive without her; and Tracy (Siobhan Cullen) is a young woman furious about her diagnosis and desperately trying to survive so she might one day have kids.

Though the plot may be predictable, each of these women are worth the admission alone. Meehan handles the tone of proceedings perfectly, never allowing the drama to become cloyingly emotional, nor allowing the dark humor to detract from the very real problems these women face. A scene featuring all the women drunkenly laughing in a hotel room as they recount stories of their sex lives is punctured by Roisin, who goes from laughter to sobbing in a way that catches your breath. As all the women crowd around to comfort her, you’re reminded of how the specter of death is ever-present in their lives. It’s sobering but poignant.

Elsewhere the cinematography is gently poetic, capturing the rolling green hills of Ireland among the staid white of the cancer ward. Close-ups of Kate, specifically during a recurring motif where she uses her breasts as a ventriloquist might a dummy, are deftly handled, rocking slightly back and forth. There’s something intimate about that, as though we’re in Kate’s own world as she navigates through it.

The Bright Side is a beautiful meditation on loss and life. It may be cliched in its plotting, but the characterizations are what make it all worthwhile. Devereux will make you feel deeply for Kate and her struggle, as she begins to challenge her view on life and grow.

Grade: A

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