The merriest time of the year has come and went now, but it's also a difficult season for those who've lost a loved one especially when their death anniversary falls during the holidays. You might be thinking, "Why then would you be recommending Good Grief for my January watch list," and to that I say because Dan Levy's directorial debut is a needed exploration of loss that feels like it must be watched while the memories of the holidays are in our periphery and not the rear view.
Levy's character Marc is a man in limbo. The film opens at his happiest when he is in the midst of throwing a Christmas party with his husband, Oliver (Luke Evans). They are surrounded by their friends and family, laughing and singing a rousing rendition of "Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday" by William Bell. It's the kind of joy and playfulness that incites a desire to be there with them and a part of the community of artists--musicians, writers, designers, composers, etc.--they call family. And then, like life is wont to do, it's interrupted in a devastating manner a little after Oliver and Marc say their goodbyes in the doorway. It's a car crash that claims Oliver's life and it's a wreck he leaves behind.
The nuanced exploration of grief
What I was not prepared for with Good Grief was Levy's choice, as the writer, to montage us through Marc's first year without Oliver once the funeral was over. But it was a needed decision because grief is not 365 days of mourning and then you're done. There is no off switch and it is messy and it is unpredictable, and in the midst of it, life carries on and continues to throw the unexpected at you because it does not slow down for you and your loss.
The movie also explores the reality that we do not know the totality of people, even those we're closes to and that truth can often hurt us. The title of this film has a double meaning. "Good Grief" as in "wow, that was a lot" or "oof, this is painful" and "Good Grief" as in the kind of mourning that is healthy. Through the process of living without Oliver and dealing with the mess his husband left behind, Marc comes to understand that he does not have a healthy way of navigating grief and never has. For those with a similar means of coping, it's like a mirror being held up.
Aside from its exploration of loss, what makes this film a must-watch is its performances. Levy is somber pretty much the whole way through, as he should be, but there's also a lightness to his performance and an understated humor that screams, "What now? What more could you throw at me?" His character is our guide through Good Grief while Ruth Negga's Sophie and Himesh Patel's Thomas are our anchors. Like they do for Marc, they tether us to the here and now.
Sophie is chaos personified. She's the "messy" friend who lives life loud and reckless which, at times, can be detrimental. Uncomfortable with the seriousness of adulthood and long-term commitment, she seeks what's new and unfamiliar. Her arc in the film centers on self-awareness and owning how she has hurt people with her lack of forethought and consideration of others. Negga plays the character with a vibrancy that ping pongs here and there, never quite settling, often in motion, and with a quick wit that's fun and playful.
Thomas is her opposite. He's considerate and constantly thinking of his friends and their feelings. But he shirks from asserting himself and gives more of his time than he should, especially to an ex-boyfriend who does not deserve it. While Sophie's arc is constructed to slow her down, Thomas' is to wake him up and stop settling or taking things on the chin when he shouldn't. Patel's performance is quiet but his character is oh so lovable and a lot like the warm sweaters he's often wearing.
Arnaud Valois' turn as Theo is my personal favorite. As a supporting character who is helping Marc reconnect with his sensual and romantic side, Theo has to be alluring enough to intrigue our lead without threatening the memory of Oliver, and Valois achieves this so impeccably that you'll be wanting to push Marc out the door so he can go spend more time with Theo.
I didn't think romance would be on the agenda in Good Grief but it is in a small way and it's steeped in connection and honesty. Marc can open up to Theo in a way that he hasn't been able to with his friends and it's a needed depiction of moving through loss.
The film's poignant ending
Without giving away what happens at the movie's conclusion, I can say that it's a satisfying one as this journey with Marc has a beginning but it doesn't necessarily have an end in the traditional sense. He's still working through his grief but the work he does on himself throughout Good Grief does put him in a good and promising place that feels cathartic and worthy of the reflection he's done and the lessons he's learned in the year since Oliver's passing. Also, Sophie and Thomas' endings are exactly what you'd want for them as well.
Good Grief's triumph is that it sorts through the mess of its characters and treats it with weight without forgetting that life can be joyous, have a sick sense of humor, and be so incredibly worth living even with the pain we're bound to experience by living it.
Good Grief is streaming now on Netflix.