Great Cast Headlines Admirable, Flawed ‘Lullaby’ on DVD Now

by Brett Steinbrink on August 4, 2014

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist - complete neutrality]

When we think of a lullaby, generally we think of a quiet song traditionally sung to a small child to gradually lull (ha!) them to sleep. Instead, you get Lullaby (available now on DVD), the effort of first-time writer/director Andrew Levitas, whose ironic name delivers an equally inconsistent story of a young man dealing with his father’s decision to give up his struggle with cancer.

Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) is flying home to visit his father (Richard Jenkins), who is dying of cancer, and has chosen to take himself off of life support. Jonathan has become estranged from his family for something like eight years, choosing to move to LA and become a musician, leaving his comfortable East Coast lifestyle. In the hospital, Jonathan meets Meredith (Jessica Barden), a seventeen-year-old girl with terminal bone cancer. They smoke together in the stairwell, and become friends throughout the film.

Additionally, Jonathan bumps into his old girlfriend Emily (Amy Adams), with whom he briefly catches up, with her revealing the reason she broke up with him was that he had no heart. Finally, Jonathan’s sister arrives, and a whole new can of worms is opened up when the family cannot cease their arguing over whether their bedridden patriarch should continue to fight or not.

Levitas is going for a couple different motifs in the film.

First and foremost, the big metaphor he’s trying to use is smoking, and all the stigmas and problems that come with it. We find out in literally the first shot of the movie that Jonathan is a heavy smoker. He’s threatened with a felony by a couple flight attendants for smoking in the lavatory on the airplane. Later, as I mentioned, he shares a cigarette with Meredith in the hospital stairwell, showing the sort of odd bond that develops when two people smoke together, because there’s almost the implication that a conversation has to take place when someone asks for a light. Quite often we see Jonathan using stepping outside for a cigarette as a way for him to think or get away from a stressful situation.

However, there’s more going on than just the fact that our main man is a heavy smoker.

Throughout the film, we slowly see the deterioration of Jonathan’s father as he weakens more and more from his disease. Much like a cigarette, he’s slowly burning down into nothing before he gets cast away. Levitas is, at the beginning of the film, dead set on using a visual gag that involves a fish-eyed close-up of Jonathan, usually fading between a hazy gray and sharply in focus, reminding me of a cloud of smoke that surrounds a smoker, as well as helping to display the conflicting emotions and attitudes of the main character. This worked for me, and I actually really enjoyed the gag, but inexplicably, he stopped using it until the last scene of the film.

On the negative side, there’s mainly problems with two characters: Meredith and Emily. We know that Jonathan is estranged from his family and is returning home for the first time in a long time (honestly, I’m reminded of Zach Braff’s Garden State in a lot of ways). The problem with Meredith’s character is that, in theory, her purpose is to show the audience that maybe Jonathan isn’t so heartless after all.  However, she often storms off for understandable reasons, but then is inexplicably suddenly okay with Jonathan again a few scenes later. This halting relationship (and, admittedly, a couple scenes that just came off as plain creepy, in my opinion) isn’t the weaker of the two, either.

Amy Adams’ character Emily is a waste of space. I don’t mean to say that she wasn’t good in the film… I mean to say that she was a part of exactly three scenes, and in one of them, she didn’t have any lines. Emily is meant to represent yet another part of Jonathan’s life that he left behind when he left his family and went to California instead of going to college like his dad wanted. Unfortunately, part of Jonathan’s healing journey when he returns home is meant to involve reconnecting with Emily, however the two scenes in which they interact at all are so limited in scope that there’s no real feeling of reconnection between the two characters. Her role in the film should’ve either been vastly expanded, or cut entirely (preferably the latter), because Lullaby offers plenty of emotional meat in other areas without tacking her on, as well.

Where Lullaby does excel, though, is when it’s just Jonathan and his family.  I’ve seen through personal experience the stages a family goes through when dealing with the time leading up to the passage of a loved one, and Levitas’ script captures the heartbreak, laughter, and desperation of the situation without missing a beat. This film carries with it the feeling that Levitas writes from personal experience rather than from a place of fabricated sadness. This realism coupled with the fact that Jonathan seems to make real growth towards making amends for his past were what kept this film from being wholly negative.

Sadly, for this DVD release, there aren’t any special features, aside from the trailer, which you can find below this review, as always.

The real kicker about Lullaby is that there’s loads of good to be seen in this film, however, the negatives equalize it, giving the whole experience a rather conflicting feeling when it’s over. I see potential in Andrew Levitas as a writer/director, however his solo outing offers inconsistent character development and a lack of commitment to visual style that make it rise above being simply forgettable.

Brett is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, with dual degrees in Film & Media Studies and History. He enjoys watching sports, playing video games, and watching too many movies/television programs. If you’re looking for someone to quote “Friends” at you, give you a detailed outline of Franco-American foreign relations during the 1790′s, or make a lame pun… he’s probably your go-to guy.

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