There are heartbreaking movies and then there are manipulative movies that break hearts by constantly hitting them with sledgehammers. Lullaby feels more like the latter, unfortunately. This is a movie where the smallest of moments work the best, while the big, tear-soaked ones feel fake. And you can’t have that type of feeling in a movie that’s meant to jerk your emotions around. If you, as a viewer, feel like these things are happening solely to provoke a sad response from you, you’re then aware of it and it loses all impact.
Tell me when the plot starts to sound overbearing. A man, Robert (Richard Jenkins), who has been fighting cancer for 12 years has decided to give up the battle. He will allow a doctor (Terrence Howard) to kill him at 8:00 the next morning. He has gathered his family around him. One of the members, Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) has been estranged for half a decade. His sister, Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay), is now a lawyer. The mother (Anne Archer), is just hanging by. Also, there’s this random terminally ill girl, Meredith (Jessica Barden), who hangs out with Jonathan. Oh, and Jonathan meets up with his ex (Amy Adams) for a few scenes so we can hammer home how immature and cold he is.
So, for most of the movie we get to recount stories, have the families fight about the past — most of this is aimed at Jonathan, since he’s technically our protagonist — and be generally unpleasant. Except Robert is dying. He will die in less than a day. And seeing all of this is sad. Or, it’s supposed to be. There are few laughs in this family, especially right now.
I suppose that should be the case. But what should lift you up and inspire you is more designed to make you cry. Instead of celebrating a life well lived, the family argues and fights and seems to care far too little about the father … even though they always seem to end each scene with “dad, don’t do it.” And then we get the sweet moments, like when Jonathan sings and plays guitar for the terminally ill cancer kids.
Any point in the film that feels sweet is disconnected from the main story. Jonathan leaves the hospital to talk to his ex, and he leaves the rest of his family to be with Meredith. When these subplots finally come to an end, you feel as if they were included because the filmmakers thought the rest of the film was too unhappy and we needed some lifting up. Admittedly, these are the most effective parts — maybe because they usually involve one-on-one acting, or perhaps it’s just because they’re not steeped in negativity, and it’s nice just to see something that doesn’t make you sad watching it.
Lullaby is supposed to be about what cancer does to not only its victim, but the family of the victim, too. We only get partly there. The film certainly portrays all that, but it often doesn’t feel genuine. That’s a tough thing to do — given that film is (generally) a scripted medium — and it often takes many attempts to make what you’re filming seem completely real. Lullaby is the directorial debut of Andrew Levitas, and that could very well be the problem. Inexperience lead to (a feeling of) insincerity, regardless of the intentions.
Some of the small moments play out better than the showy make-you-cry ones. A late conversation between Jonathan and his sister reveal more about the characters than much of the hour of film. A moment in which Jonathan “changes” his father (I’ll let you figure out what that means) and then lies beside him is earnest and sweet. A no-nonsense nurse (Jennifer Hudson) is simply always funny.
Lullaby needed more of these moments. A “less is more” approach. Less forced drama — more naturalistic moments. There’s truth to some of the things that happen in the film, and much of its ideas have emotional power. This often just gets overlooked or overshadowed. It’s not like this is a bad watch, either, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the poignancy or power that it should or its filmmakers probably wanted. It might be an effective tearjerker for some people but for the average audience member I suspect it will fall flat.
I’m surprised I didn’t really care about the performances a whole lot. Richard Jenkins and Jessica Barden were the standouts, but everyone else just kind of fell into place as part of the scenery. Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, and Jennifer Hudson only had small roles, Jessica Brown Findlay’s American accent was dreadful, and Garrett Hudland was … fine, I guess, in the lead role. Most of the actors are just fine. The film’s content, its business, and its fake feeling make them feel almost irrelevant. That’s weird for a drama.
Lullaby should have been a lot more powerful than it is. There’s a constant feeling of insincerity about it, almost as if all of its events exist to make you tear up. Even its happy moments aim to make you cry tears of joy. It feels phony, and when that’s something you can sense, it’s hard to become attached to the story or characters. As a tearjerker, I suppose it could have been worse, but most people are going to be rolling their eyes more than patting them down with handkerchiefs.