Anyone who has known the joy/strain (depending on the circumstances) of family estrangement will be especially interested in entering writer/director Nikki Braendlin’s world of clean as a whistle on the outside/roiling with emotion underneath.
The three principals are all related. Obsessive-compulsive Margaret (a wonderful mix of textures and tones from Caroline Fogarty—even managing a first-rate mechanical doll impersonation) is waking up in an empty bed due to the sudden departure of her fiancé, Matthew. Her 14-years-senior sister, Josephine (the perennial hippie is given a convincing turn by Bonnie McNeil) struggles through life—but with a seemingly constant smile—dealing with the personal challenges of being a single mom as well as the shared, sudden loss of their parents when Margaret was just four.
10-year-old Hannah is alternately precocious and moody depending on the company Josephine keeps (showing an early knack for characterization, Laurel Porter makes an impressive début).
As the film opens, Josephine and Hannah quite literally show up at Margaret’s pure-white motif doorstep in California. The last time the two siblings laid eyes on each other was shortly after the death of their parents: 17-year-old Josephine bailed to embrace communal life leaving baby Margaret to be raised by two opinionated aunts (Dee Wallace and Jenny O’Hara—via cellphone chats—are heard as a running gag but never seen).
From that point on the narrative follows a largely predictable path as the exceptionally fastidious host tries to cope with relationship grief and long out-of-the-picture (save and except for the odd letter) kin simultaneously. Naturally, Josephine has an out-of-town errand, leaving the decidedly unloved aunt and her petulant niece home alone for a few days. Of course the ice begins to thaw (or where’s the movie to go) but the unlikely “breaker” arrives in the dance-track savvy form of Kay-Tee-P (Lainee Gram is a delight). As the pop star draws out yet another personal loss from the enthralled-to-meet-a-star Hannah, a song is born—mercilessly scorning Stevie the Dixie cup ex-boyfriend—with a beat, saucy lyrics and the inevitable jazz hands. Right around this time, Hannah—literally and metaphorically—takes Matthew’s place in Margaret’s bed.
That song is the perfect foil to Kristen Baum’s original score where the chamber music feel (notably, cello, guitar, accordion and clarinets) adds much to the mood—although for those who crave fast-paced storytelling, the overall flow—particularly Act I—may be too slow by half.
Not surprisingly again (the theme has had many incarnations, cross-reference below) more family secrets are unveiled as the familial bonds strengthen or—in one notable case—dramatically stumbled upon in the script’s major aha!
After the final crisis passes, the film slips dangerously near the precipice of sanguine, but manages to conclude with more hope than disdain for this chapter of difficult family business laid bare. JWR