If nothing else, the low-key Canadian drama The Rest of Us makes a surprisingly strong case for Heather Graham as a dramatic actor. Graham is affecting and understated as children’s-book author Cami, whose life is thrown into mild chaos when her ex-husband dies suddenly. Cami lives a peaceful life outside Toronto in a massive house with her college-age daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse), although mother and daughter occasionally clash over Aster’s lack of direction in life and Cami’s denial about her creative stagnation. When they find out that Craig, Cami’s ex-husband and Aster’s father, has died unexpectedly, they’re mostly just angry at the man who left his wife and daughter for his mistress, starting a new family while leaving the old one behind.
Rather than pitting two women against each other over an obviously flawed man, director Aisling Chin-Yee and screenwriter Alanna Francis show sympathy for both sides, as Craig’s second wife Rachel (Jodi Balfour) is left completely stranded after his death, when his penchant for reckless spending leaves her and her daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky) broke and homeless. In what sounds like the set-up for a sitcom, Cami agrees to let Rachel and Talulah live at her house while they try to rebuild the lives that were shattered by Craig’s death. There are bits of gentle comedy as the two mother-daughter pairs attempt to get used to each other, but mostly The Rest of Us is about the complex process of grieving for someone who was both loved and hated, and letting go of resentments toward people who are not to blame for events outside their control.
There are no villains here (even Craig is warmly remembered at various times by those he’s left behind), and the conflicts that arise are resolved effectively if occasionally a little too neatly, especially at the end. The nuanced performances from all four leads allow the audience to shift sympathies as the movie goes along, but the filmmakers take care to represent each perspective thoughtfully. The movie is best in its quiet moments of bonding, between newfound sisters sharing a personal favorite spot, or all four getting the chance to cut loose and enjoy swimming in Cami’s gorgeous pool.
Most of the tensions come about naturally, although there’s one big plot twist toward the end that is both extremely predictable and curiously underplayed in its build-up, and the movie might have been better off if the filmmakers hadn’t felt the need to generate some contrived conflict. Even so, that twist serves to bring the characters closer together after initially driving them apart, and the overall tone of the movie is about people being understanding and compassionate, even toward those that society might expect them to treat as enemies.
Chin-Yee, a longtime producer making her feature directorial debut, has a simple, grounded style, letting the performances drive the movie. Graham may be the most recognizable face, but the performances are strong all around, even in scenes that could come off as cutesy or twee. At only 80 minutes, the movie ends well before overstaying its welcome, as the characters are just finding confidence in the new directions of their lives. The emotional impact lingers in the unseen moments yet to come.
(Screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival; release scheduled for Feb. 14.)