SXSW Exclusive Review: An Elephant in the Room

Year: 2020
Runtime: 87  Minutes
Director: Katrine Philp

By Erica Richards

The death of a loved one is difficult. As a child, losing a loved one such as a parent or sibling seems unimaginable. Childhood can be confusing in itself. Death, whether it is expected or not, is never easy. Death is something adults find dreadful, but we understand it is inevitable. How does any person deal with loss and grief? No one can ever prepare for how they will react to the loss of a loved one until it happens. Every person is different. Most adults go through stages of grief, some never confront those feelings for the rest of their lives. However, children barely understand what living is—let alone death.

This documentary is reminiscent of an Italian neorealism film—as if the filmmaker just swooped in on these children’s lives for small moments in time and then left. When the film opens, a child can barely contain himself as he chokes back tears, and the first impression is that you are about to be along for a roller coaster of emotions. Instead, we see the children doing mundane things at home and at Good Grief, the community located in New Jersey that focuses on a holistic approach to assist the children in mourning their loss.

The camera and voice stay with the children, a unique approach at storytelling for such a taboo topic. The lack of an adult voice to carry the story is intentional, but the result makes the film lack structure. It feels incomplete. The things that are teased visually, like the makeshift hospital room filled with stuffed animals where children assumingly have a chance to “say goodbye”, although we never actually see or hear any of the children go through this at Good Grief. It is just a wide shot of the empty room. That setup is a disappointing promise for the viewer that never comes to fruition.

“This documentary is reminiscent of an Italian neorealism film—as if the filmmaker just swooped in on these children’s lives for small moments in time and then left…Where the direction of the story is going is unsure of itself, it always seems to be getting somewhere and then it falls short.”

elephant

The best part of this story is Peter. Peter is a six-year-old who unfortunately lost both parents within 18 months from completely separate incidents. He is such a sweet little boy who you can see really trying to understand and come to terms with the loss of his mother and father. Peter’s mother’s brother, his Uncle CJ, is one of two adults we barely get close to that are related to the children this documentary centres around. Peter lives his new life with his Uncle CJ. The story could have benefited from interviews with Uncle CJ, or other adults who are visually in the story, like the workers/volunteers at Good Grief, but never actually have a voice.

Where the direction of the story is going is unsure of itself, it always seems to be getting somewhere and then it falls short. The children are pieced together with no connection, bouncing from child to child, experience to experience. The interviews with the children are intended to be quirky and cute—but in reality, it is sad and not laughable. It is understandable to desire to show the honesty in navigating grief through a child’s eyes and it is endearing. However, you yearn to see them overcome their grief, to grow from this unwanted and confusing experience that no child should have to go through—but it does not happen. It is understood that the point is to not break from the experience of the children, but it causes much less of an impact.

2.5 stars

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