Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Leah Hager Cohen, Patrick Wang’s The Grief of Others demonstrates a thematic kinship with the writer-director’s prior In the Family. Both films deal unsentimentally with peoples’ lives in the wake of tragedy, but where In the Family was a procedural that looked at the legal woes that dog a gay man after his partner dies, The Grief of Others examines the very nature of grief and its effect on one family months after the death of a newborn. This a much leaner film in terms of narrative incident, though it paves the way for Wang to step into new artistic terrain.
After a pregnant Jess (Sonya Harum) pays an unexpected visit to her father, John (Trevor St. John), and decides to stay with him and his family, her presence reignites the Ryries’ unresolved grief over their recently deceased child. Wang shifts between points of view throughout The Grief of Others, whose shard-like construction gets at how a family’s members are at once united and separated by trauma. The film’s observational wide shots are disarmingly intimate, submerging us in each character’s perspective so that we can fully grasp the root cause of every confrontation or avoidance. In one shot, John’s wife, Ricky (Wendy Moniz), is glimpsed through her car’s rear-view mirror, numb with pain as her husband informs her of Jess’s arrival. Elsewhere, John and Ricky’s son, Biscuit (Oona Laurence), skips school and, later, starts a small fire inside the family bathroom in ritualistic fashion.
Throughout, visual flourishes, from superimposed images to abrupt cuts to black, convey how these characters seem caught in the miasmic bog of their own minds. The most striking of these flourishes, often kicked into motion by the way an object or place is inextricably tied to something from the past, occurs in a scene that sees Jess visiting the home of a new friend, Gordie (Mike Faist), and marveling at the handcrafted diorama pieces made by his late father. Images of hands at work are superimposed over a close-up of Gordie while we hear a conversation presumably between the young man and his father on the soundtrack. This brief passage speaks to Wang’s profound empathy, as this relatively minor character in the film is shown to also not have completely moved on from his own experience with death.
The Grief of Others is intensely fixated on how the members of the Ryries family, routinely framed against stark blank walls and vast exteriors, are isolated by their trauma. But the film’s quietly astonishing final scene suggests that there’s an escape from this emotional purgatory. Superimposed over a long shot of their empty kitchen, the family partakes in one of Biscuit’s rituals, wordlessly acknowledging that they’re finally willing to work together through their sorrow. The scene, at once haunting and elating, is the culmination of Wang’s desire to always find hope in the midst of trying times.