Indie Flashback: Rachel Getting Married

Debra Winger, Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway star in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Debra Winger, Rosemarie DeWitt and Anne Hathaway star in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

As yet another silly awards season kicks into hyper-drive, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of films vying for accolades will be blissfully forgotten soon after February 24th. Only the truly extraordinary films will be remembered for years to come. Such is the case with Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” a movie that scored only one Oscar nod, and yet is far more potent and provocative than any of 2008’s Best Picture nominees.

The film was a career-rejuvenating risk for director Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”), who desired to make a naturalistic, observant picture like the microbudget indies he had admired (Susanne Bier’s sublime “After the Wedding” also served as a key inspiration). Utilizing a splendid debut script from Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) as his foundation, Demme assembled a group of his friends (including an exquisite array of musicians, such as Robyn Hitchcock) and shot the picture in 33 days. For the first time, Demme relied on his skills as a veteran documentarian to ground a scripted narrative in tangible realism.

Lumet’s tale of a troubled young woman, Kym (Anne Hathaway), leaving rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), is refreshingly devoid of the standard formulaic clichés that mar many a dysfunctional family dramedy. Her film takes the form of a self-contained vignette where no overarching conflict is tidily resolved. Demme’s decision to allow the background action to occasionally overtake the central narrative was a brave one and absolutely crucial to the film’s thematic texture. Despite the ever-present residue of a past tragedy that threatens to paralyze Kym and her family, life charges inexorably forward–flooding their large, vaguely somber house with a sea of smiles, laughter and exuberant music.

Instead of stitching together the script’s dramatic highpoints while leaving all the other footage on the cutting room floor, Demme allows the audience to feel like a participant in Rachel’s entire wedding weekend. This refreshing, anti-Hollywood approach enables the viewer to observe the richly complex dynamics between Kym, Rachel and their colorful company as they go through the rhythms of the festivities. Rather than solely showcase Kym’s mortifyingly unhinged wedding toast, Demme goes around the entire table, lingering long enough to capture the essence of each heartfelt speech, thus making Kym’s words all the more alarming in contrast.

What inspired me to recently revisit Demme’s film–which I dug out of a $5 bin at Best Buy–was its unforgettable powerhouse performances. No two actresses in 2012 are more deserving of Best Supporting Actress nods than Hathaway (for her gut-wrenching turn in “Les Misérables”) and DeWitt (for her sensational work in “Your Sister’s Sister”). “Rachel” marked the first time that I became aware of either actress’s greatness. I always felt Hathaway displayed peculiarly engaging screen charisma, but it wasn’t until Demme’s film that she exuded raw, visceral vulnerability. She nails the anxiety of an addict who talks too loud and at too fast a pace while attempting to appear functional among others. When the film requires her to expose her inner-most agony and regret sharply tinged with self-loathing, Hathaway is absolutely heartbreaking.

I hadn’t seen DeWitt in a film prior to “Rachel,” and have been amazed by the seemingly effortless authenticity of her work ever since. “Your Sister’s Sister” director Lynn Shelton was so taken with the believability of the characters in “Rachel” that she assumed their dialogue was improvised. That’s why Shelton thought DeWitt would be a perfect last-second replacement for Rachel Weisz, who dropped out of “Sister” a few days prior to shooting. It is entirely a testament to DeWitt’s brilliance that she was able to master the conflicting tones of her tricky role with the barest minimum of preparation. Her climactic breakdown in Shelton’s movie is every bit as jaw-dropping as Hathaway’s galvanizing interpretation of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

It is an absolute joy to watch these two formidable talents capture the nuances of a fractured yet vital sibling bond in Demme’s film. Hovering over the action like a grave spectre is the girls’ mother, Abby (Debra Winger), one of the iciest maternal figures since Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People.” She winces at the very sight of Kym, whose mental and emotional scars serve as an enduring reminder of the tragedy in which Abby herself was complicit. The tensions between mother and daughter erupt in a shockingly viscous confrontation that is the very definition of operatic. Only when Rachel–yearning to repair her own bond with her mother and sister–forcibly pulls Kym and Abby in for a shared embrace do they come close to some semblance of a reconciliation.

If you haven’t seen “Rachel Getting Married,” do yourself a favor and Netflix it or dig it out of the closest bargain bin. It is one of the best films–indie or otherwise–I’ve ever seen.

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