Blackbird is entirely composed of contradictions and mixed emotions. Grief over the loss of a beloved matriarch, and relief that her pain is coming to an end. The helplessness of a devastating, degenerative disease, and the empowerment of having the choice of when to end things. An immensely emotional premise, and its somewhat stagey, distant execution. Blackbird should be everything you could want in a dying parent drama: with its staggeringly talented cast, viewers should expect nothing less than perfection. But while there are some great moments that truly hit the mark, more often than not, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it squanders a lot of opportunities to be something extraordinary.
Lily (Susan Sarandon) has everything planned out. She’s going to have a fun, relaxing weekend with her nearest and dearest, and then she’s going to die. Lily has ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that will slowly take away her ability to walk, talk, even breathe, and she’s decided that she’s going to end her life on her own terms well before it reaches that stage.
So a family get-together is planned: loving doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill); best friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan); Type-A daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) with husband (a delightfully human Rainn Wilson) and son (up-and-comer Anson Boon) in tow; and emotionally fragile youngest daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) along with her supernaturally supportive girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus). The whole gang is here, and it’s exactly as uncomfortable as one would expect. Jennifer, tightly wound and scrambling to make things feel normal, brings a set of salt and pepper shakers as a gift that she later berates herself for. “There’s not exactly the perfect gift for this sort of thing,” her husband comforts her. He’s right.
Because while there’s a certain beauty and nobility in the right of a terminally ill person to choose their own death, that doesn’t make it any less of an emotionally precarious situation for everyone involved. Blackbird is at its best when it plays with this balance, allowing space for the characters to almost fool themselves into thinking that this is just a normal family gathering, but never quite managing it. Moments of joy and humor, then we’re pulled right back to reality, as though a bucket of water has been dumped over our heads.
It’s less compelling, on the other hand, when it leans into the sort of privileged family drama that has provided material for off-Broadway plays for decades. The hostile dynamic between Jennifer and Anna feels especially undefined and overly wrought — there’s room for resentment in any family, but the way that it comes out here just feels like WASPy elites who have little to worry about other than their own perceived grievances with one another. That’s kind of the elephant in the room: the fact that you could literally ride an elephant through any one of the massive, sprawling rooms in their idyllic beach house, so far removed from reality for most viewers that it makes it occasionally difficult to connect. Despite the incredibly evocative subject matter, it has a baffling detachment at times, and the family dynamics ring hollow.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that they gave Jennifer and Anna a complicated relationship so that two exceptional female actors would have meaty scenes with one another, but it doesn’t actually add anything to the plot. The best moments come when their issues with each other are underplayed and subtly alluded to rather than screamed about, as they make a decision to let this weekend be about their mother instead of their petty grievances. But these moments are vastly outnumbered by episodes of relentless bickering that come across as manufactured.
Some scenes have such quiet, devastating power, when they’re allowed to just live in the moment as they grapple with the overwhelming finality of what is about to occur. This is really what saves Blackbird, getting the script out of the way and letting these incredible actors do their jobs. It’s just a shame that the true beauty of the film is so frequently overshadowed by pointless, unnecessary drama that serves no real purpose. Blackbird is still worth watching: the gorgeous family dinner sequence alone is worth the price of admission. But it never reaches its potential, and despite having assembled a powerhouse cast, their talents are disappointingly underutilized. Kate Winslet, Sam Neill, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska: they’re going to be great in whatever you have them do. But if you’re not going to give them material to match their skills, what are we all doing here?