Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Seagrass’ Shows an Intimate Understanding of Family

Director: Meredith Hama-Brown
Writers: Meredith Hama-Brown
Stars: Ally Maki, Luke Roberts, Nyha Huang Breitkreuz

Synopsis: A Japanese-Canadian woman grapples with the death of her mother as she brings her family to a retreat. When her relationship with her husband begins to affect the children’s emotional security, the family is changed forever.

You’ll immediately notice Seagrasss ominous mood, even a sense of impending doom, very similar to the 2021 film The Humans, when it comes to Meredith Hama-Brown’s evocative family drama. The Canadian filmmakers never let the viewer shake off the anxiety of the future and the depression of holding onto the past, leading to a metaphorical dark cloud hovering over this family of four. Or, in this case, a dark cave that represents the distress or uneasiness of the future for a family in crisis.

Hama-Brown’s Seagrass script focuses its story on Judith (Shortcoming’s Ally Maki), a Japanese-Canadian woman still in mourning over the loss of her mother. Judith’s mom passed away five months prior. The ordeal has brought on an existential crisis within her. She has become withdrawn, and her mind is preoccupied with what the loss represents in her own life. Judith and her family attend a relationship retreat in order to deal with the issue.

This involves her husband, Steve (Game of Thrones’s Luke Roberts), a man who gives the mild impression that his patience is wearing thin over his wife’s loss. There is a scene in group therapy where Judith tells everyone her mother died, and then he quickly adds the timeframe. This makes Steve a complex character that’s fascinating to watch as the story unfolds. He seems like a doting husband and caring father, but as he realizes his wife’s unhappiness, his true colors begin to show.

Steve becomes jealous of Judith’s attention to a man in the group (Joy Ride’s Chris Pang), a man of Chinese Australian ancestry and they share a bond between their Asian heritage. He attends the retreat with his wife (Sarah Gadon), and this triggers some issues for Judith, one of race and intercultural marriage. Steve’s jealousy brings out subtle to overt racial commentary, not just about Pang’s Pat—which can’t be labeled as understandable just because he’s jealous—but of Judith’s own family.

The situation is alarming because of Steve’s own children’s heritage. Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller) have to deal with the racist comments of their peers, as well. While the latter doesn’t realize the song she repeats and the nasty racial undertones, Stephanie deals with girls her own age, talking about how she “looks normal.” We know these terms aren’t inherent. These children are learning them, most likely inside their own homes.

What makes Seagrass so fascinating is how it is grown organically within Meredith Hama-Brown’s script. Everything we discuss comes up naturally, never overtly, and even with the subtle delivery by the flawless cast, there are gut punches because you can see the harm it begins to take on the nuclear family. And Steve is not alone because Judith begins to displace her unhappiness onto her children with a quick-trigger temper that can have lasting effects for years. 

Seagrass is a stoic film of hidden layers. Judith, to an untrained eye, is suffering the type of bereavement that is often felt by the offspring of first-generation immigrants. Maki’s character has guilt over the legacy of sacrifice her parents made to make a better life for their children. Steve displaces his feelings over his crumbling marriage onto a supportive stranger. This trickles down to their children and begins to affect the family as a whole.

Hama-Brown has an intimate understanding of family dynamics. The youngest child is clearly left vulnerable because she is dependent on her parents and big sister. Also, the oldest child could be classified as “acting out.” However, the Canadian filmmaker focuses on the interactions and dynamics with the family members as part of larger issues connected to the family system as a whole. 

The writing is excellent here because you learn about each individual character as Hama-Brown’s script begins to triangulate between three characters at a time, dealing with profound issues of mental health, grief, transitions, and cultural identity. Much of that is communicated through Norm Li’s cinematography. Please take notice of the ball Emmy is obsessed with as it floats, always staying above water. Then, you’ll take in transition scenes where the camera takes on a fluid, unconventional motion. 

For example, there is a scene in Seagrass where Stephanie falls asleep on top of a cabin with a blue roof. The camera bobs up and down, giving the viewer the illusion of a child floating in the sea. Evoking the precarious situation the children are in. Then you have scenes of rough waters, symbolizing all the angry and sad feelings that blind you from your own reflection and make you see yourself clearly

This all ties into the final scenes and highlights two stellar performances in Seagrass. Maki’s unwinding and letting go are phenomenal and the best performance of her career. Roberts’s turn as a husband watching his family life slip away is something to be held. This all leads to a devastating scene of cruel honesty and heartbreaking forgiveness. 

It’s stunning, really, and that backs up the point of the failure in communication that has built up so much ill will that’s finally released. Seagrass, on its own terms, is a profound experience. 

Grade: A

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