by Kayla McCulloch on Sep 25, 2020

What is Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment? It sounds like a nickname for the kind of treacly, heartstring-pulling melodramas found on the Hallmark Channel. It also seems like an apt moniker for those primetime soaps that friends and relatives can’t stop recommending, the ones with hopeful-sounding titles and conversely distressing storylines that mix together in a melting pot of woe. As it turns out, Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment is not a joke. It’s a real media company with diverse output, backing titles like Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch (2016) and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) instead of the kinds of uplifting films the name suggests. Most recently, the independent production company backed Blackbird, the latest film from Notting Hill (1999) director Roger Michell. Unfortunately, it feels more like salt in a wound than an emotional salve.

Lily (Susan Sarandon) can’t bear it any longer. The symptoms of her ALS have worsened, and the disease is gaining momentum. At this rate, she’s practically hurtling toward death’s doorstep. She fights to get out of bed, takes ages to put on her robe, and swats away husband Paul’s (Sam Neill) helping hand as she trudges down the staircase to the ground level of their picturesque two-story beachfront estate. Her loved ones will be arriving shortly, however, and this gives her the energy to do a victory dance around the kitchen’s enormous island. Her body is frail, but for the moment it’s full of joy. Outside, daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), son-in-law Michael (Rainn Wilson), and grandson Jonathan (Anton Boon) creep up the gravel driveway. They’re early, which is really on time for someone as uptight as Jennifer. Awkward pleasantries aside, they make themselves at home and avoid talking about the elephant in the room: Lily will be dead by Sunday night, but not from ALS. She’s going to kill herself, surrounded by her nearest and dearest.

Lily’s best friend, Liz (Lindsay Duncan), arrives next, immediately irritating Jennifer: Wasn’t this supposed to be for family only? Still, Lily’s happy to see her, and that’s what matters most. Just beyond the property line, the last member of the immediate family to arrive, youngest daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska), sits in her ruby-red convertible with her girlfriend, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Rocky relationship with Jennifer and geographic distance aside, the situation is too much for Anna to handle. She eventually musters up the courage to approach the house, but she doesn’t ever drop the hard feelings she’s harboring. As their morbid weekend drags on, it becomes apparent that the others are clinging to their grievances as tightly as she is. Lily may be dying in a few days, but the rest have to keep on existing with each other. Perhaps the matriarch is their glue, and her departure will only solidify their estrangement.

Contrary to the standard terminal-illness family drama (of which there are plenty), Blackbird is utterly hopeless and unrelentingly bleak. This appears to be by design. There’s a sustained sadness that persists from beginning to end, like a flatline on an EKG. The film contains not a single glimmer of optimism or suggestion that maybe, just maybe, Lily’s health might turn a corner. Despite this, empty platitudes abound, as if the perfect phrase might somehow fix things. Friends and family drift through this gorgeous home like ghosts, mulling over the imminent suicide like they’re discussing the weather or last night’s big game. They repeat hollow sentiments to each other — “I’m proud of you,” “You’re so brave,” “Death taught me how to live” — whenever someone squeezes their hand. Rather than a moving score swelling as Lily suddenly decides to give living a chance, every character knows that nothing can be said or done to change her mind. After all, they’ve already assembled for the wake.

The family at the center of Blackbird couldn’t be described as kind or even decent, really. They are deceptive, harsh, unforgiving, and judgmental. Wrongdoings are never forgotten, secrets are never kept, and selflessness is never demonstrated. Yet, like other recent entries in this specific subgenre, namely August: Osage County (2013) and Still Alice (2014), Blackbird’s ensemble cast does a convincing job of elevating what could have been a disastrously hokey affair. Director Michell doesn’t get too flashy or ambitious with his iteration of screenwriter Christian Torpe’s Swedish film Silent Heart (2014). The director provides the big names — Sarandon, Neill, Winslet, and Wasikowska — space to demonstrate their talents while allowing the supporting players — Wilson, Boon, Duncan, and Taylor-Krause — the opportunity to sharpen their skills opposite these rock-solid leads. Likewise, cinematographer Mike Eley stays back from the action, steadily shooting scenes from the sidelines (and occasionally entirely different rooms). The film replicates the feeling of a stage play as opposed to the up-close-and-personal shaky-cam aesthetic to which so many filmmakers and audiences have become accustomed.

If a sanguine, well-acted drama centering on a moribund mother constitutes a hearty, homemade chicken soup, then Blackbird is an unappetizing fast-food broth. Yes, all the ingredients are there, and yes, it looks mostly right, but there’s something slightly off about the whole thing. Something artificial; something that leaves a bad taste and a feeling of undernourishment. In all likelihood, the missing component is the absence of universal truths. Lily’s life doesn’t feel like a wasted one or a well-spent one — it simply doesn’t feel like one at all. The viewer struggles to discern who she was before she became ill, and the same goes for the rest of the people under her roof. Who are they? Who were they? How did Lily’s diagnosis disrupt that? The answers to these questions are unclear, as are the reasons to dedicate undivided attention to their plight. Regardless of the strength of its cast or the proficiency of its production, Blackbird has nothing honest or notable to impart. Take its thesis statement as proof of this: Near the midpoint, Jonathan asks his grandmother for the important advice he knows she’s gathered throughout her years. She simply tells him that all he can do is show up and try his best. A similar approach was clearly taken with Blackbird, a lackluster production that gives it the old college try.

Rating: C+

Blackbird is now available to rent from major online platforms.