If I’m allowed one free pass to render a purely subjective assessment and pass it off as objective analysis, it will be the double bill that will double as the last memory of my grandmother sitting in the next room before spending six weeks in intensive care prior to her passing. I cannot recollect another moment more recent prior to that final infirmity. On a whim, we decided to watch two films—Lavender (2016) and The Block Island Sound (2020)—back to back. Under normal circumstances, both would undergo the critical scrutiny that will see them fail to make the full grade. Instead they will go down as such; saved by their association with a memory, and tinged with bittersweet yearning and immediate nostalgia for established fixture. We are silos of our dreams and baggage alike, and pain and repressed memories are no different. These two films tease out such ideas but only slightly beyond the surface level. They’re not too shabby as they warrant some discussion.
Fittingly, both films examine the domestic realm, delving into the familial strains at varying degrees of depth to uncover generational traumas. Lavender, the more psychologically driven selection, is full of eye catching cinematography that heighten the melancholic condition of a rootless protagonist. Jane (Abbie Cornish) suffers from amnesia that puts strain on her relationship with her husband Alan (Diego Klatenhoff) and daughter. She photographs abandoned farmhouses for a living, and is drawn to one particular house. A head injury in a car accident complicates her condition by burying some memories while bringing out others long-forgotten. Past traumas come to the fore in a manner that is novel and compelling at first but not clever to sustain desired interest thereafter. It begins in a crime scene frozen in time, the stationary figures all pausing mid-action as the camera gliding between them. Following this clever opening scene depicting events twenty-five years in the past, writer-director Gass-Donnelly and co-writer Frizzell efficiently bypass effort and time required to build the background setting jumping straight ahead to the present. Her entire family is slain, with all indications pointing to a troubled survivor as a possible culprit. It crumbles under the weight of the promise of its intriguing set-up. Instead of a storyline about familicide, Gass-Donnelly kicks the can down the road only for the entire affair to devolve into the tired formula of a ghost story and bogeyman of pedophilia. When mementos mysteriously pop up, nudging Jane to confront the past, a stalker is suspected at first. But all evidence point to it being the work of specters of the past crying for justice. Talk about a letdown but I won’t skewer the producers any further than what has been said here or elsewhere.
The Block Island Sound fares much better in terms of credibility. It commands attention extensively, prolonging its conceit up to the last minute, though is guilty of providing little in the way of a satisfying release near the end. The sibling director duo—Kevin and Mathew McManus —came out of the film’s release as the toast of their own hometown. As a mysterious plague descends on an island community’s shores, a melange of conspiracy theory, cover-ups, science fiction and viral outbreak is allowed to fester and yield a little bit of everything. Think The Mist with a tense family drama ratcheted up to levels both unbearable and unsustainable. First it is maritime wildlife washing ashore dead before an avian counterpart falls out of the sky. The only terrestrial creatures to succumb to the infestation—if it is even that—are a few targeted individuals and a pet dog getting kooky and acting irrational. Anchored by the engaging drama and a strong script, the film captivates interest immediately. Chris Sheffield and Michaela McManus, as siblings Harry and Audry, combine terrifically to portray the feuds and conflicts in every household. For large stretches, the cause of this rabbies-like malady remains anyone’s guess but the acting grounds the incredibility of chaos in the familiarity of domestic squabbles. Between the widower, the son still around to care for him, and two sisters ‘away’ on the mainland (because that’s where real work is) and a history of estrangement, it is not clear if the symptoms are the work of something lurking beneath the waters or are manifestations of guilt, grief, or genetic even. Except that is a cop-out also.