Grayson Lazarus on Aisling Chin-Yee’s ‘The Rest of Us’ (2020)
The Rest of Us is formally barebones. Director Aisling Chin-Yee quickly spits out sequences with quick-cut editing and handheld mediums that establishes a consistency; regardless of content, each scene will feel and look the same. The inciting incident — the revelation of an absentee ex-husband’s death in the bathtub — lasts a scarce minute, composed with a pace that allows no jittery close-up of an actress’ hands or backseat profile for more than a scant few seconds. “Your father drowned in the bathtub,” says the ex-wife. The daughter responds, “I didn’t even know he took baths.” Without a beat, the scene cuts, allowing for little consideration of its intention. Whether funny, poignant, or sad, we’re now halfway through a montage of preparing for the funeral. Tone deaf moments like these are sprinkled throughout the The Rest of Us, concluding a third of every scene with disorientation. If the form were more than the expectation of a first time director’s simplistic take on a drama, it could be confused as stylistic.
At 77 minutes, the film is bare, but not because of its packed story, which follows ex-wife Cami (Heather Graham) and daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) taking in the father’s second family — the so-called “home-wrecking” new wife Rachel (Jodi Balfour) and daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). Chin-Yee’s editing (in collaboration with Veronique Barbe) provides an uncharacteristically propulsive experience for a contained drama, accelerating through almost every scene as though a stopwatch was clutched tightly in one hand during post-production, guaranteeing scenes could not last longer than three minutes a pop. Rarely are beats left between gaps in character interactions. Constant bickering and overt declarations of internal thought fill every second, as transitions are minimally executed and basic spatial parameters ignored. At once, the viewer may be at the beach, dessert pallor, front lawn, and backyard pool. Breathing appears to not be a concern in the affective repertoire.
The structure is scattershot and slipshod as the film clumsily drifts between character moments. Aster’s decision to drop out of college and her regret over cheating on her best friend, Rachel’s search for a new job, Talulah’s rejection of her father’s death, and Cami’s halted production on her new book, have thirty seconds dedicated to them at a time, only to be followed up on 30 minutes later. Every attempt at characterisation is turned into a collage of beats with luster packed into a story where the character arcs on which the film is founded are muddled almost immediately. Aster hates Rachel, the woman she accuses of breaking up her family, but a thirty second interaction in which less than half a dozen lines of one-sided drunken ramblings are spoken makes her more appealing to Aster than her own mother. Rachel’s insulted and dejected attitude towards Cami, her perpetually giving caretaker, changes after receiving a cup of coffee and financial advice.
Little, but some, residual power holds over from the film’s cast, each member of which plays a character put into unfortunate circumstances. With most sequences playing out like montages and compilations, a performance with consistency and range risks the cutting room floor. Yet exceeding professionalism from the actors prevail. Graham, a decades-spanning professional herself, mixes a persistent optimism with a breathless dejection, the result of having those around her disappoint in new and aggravating ways. Competency from her is unsurprising, but the rest of the largely fresh-faced cast excel despite difficult circumstances, particularly Nélisse, who plays the insufferable Aster as a fully convincing teenage brat who will change mood at a second’s notice, destroying everyone’s good or already awkward time. Writer Alanna Francis has an ear for the parlance of the teenage arguer. Aster is constantly shifting goal posts, muddying the waters, and flat out changing topics of conversation in order to meet her own incompatible adolescent goals of being left alone or starting a fight.
The Rest of Us ends with a universal reconciliation, where all parties choose to forgive and forget past conflicts, swimming and living together in upscale harmony. The sudden shift in the character’s morality is difficult enough, but the moral implications appear even more suspect. What is the threshold for forgiveness when such flagrant disrespect has been demonstrated between certain parties? Perhaps a longer running-time would assist in such questions but, more likely, giving scenes room to breathe would remedy the issues. Who said The Rest of Us needed to be so very short?
The Rest of Us is available on UK digital download 23rd March.