For his surefooted directorial debut, playwright Mark Kemble uses the stifled beauty of snowbound Staten Island to frame the psychological boundaries of a long-suffering family. The sadness weighing down the Kendall family like wet snow on evergreen branches isn’t simply holiday malaise. It’s Christmas 1999, and the doomsday fears of Y2K have nothing on the Kendalls’ everyday miseries. Elaine (Karen Allen) is caretaker to her adult children, the developmentally disabled DeeDee (Iris Gilad) and Gulf War veteran Kent (Johnny Whitworth), whose undiagnosed chronic pain reaches a crescendo at the same time that his sister’s violent outbursts become a daily occurrence.
Allen exudes a wide-eyed vulnerability, and instead of interpreting Elaine as downtrodden or resentful, she plays the role with a steely fragility rooted in compassion and steadfast love. When Elaine asserts that she’s comfortable calling her daughter “retarded” (the terminology when DeeDee was born), Allen turns the line into a declaration of unvarnished devotion. Likewise, Elaine may never call Kent’s condition PTSD, but she knows deep in her bones that his pain is real.
In adapting his autobiographical play Bad Hurt on Cedar Street, Kemble and co-screenwriter Jamieson Stern swap portentous Easter for light-in-the-darkness Christmas and construct muted scenes that expose each character’s isolation and yearning. Gilad (who played DeeDee onstage) and Calvin Dutton are remarkable as an unfettered couple whose tics joyously dovetail, their giddiness counterbalanced by a quietly devastating Michael Harney as a Vietnam vet weighed down by guilt and disappointment. As overlooked sibling Todd, Staten Island native Theo Rossi shoulders family obligations and career frustrations while holding on to the smallest sliver of hope. Grief unleashes the possibility of change in this wrenching drama, allowing for an unexpected emotional thaw that rewards both stubborn optimism and traumatic resilience.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on February 12, 2016 by Screen Media Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.