Kaitlyn Johnston, star of writer/co-director's last film Captive, returns to lead and co-direct this film, a gentle weeper film somewhat remniscent of a John Green type of story with its gentle life lessons, young people forced to learn too much too fast, and universal themes packed into an intimate little story.
If you know me, of course, you know that such a statement is a compliment as I fancy myself a Green fan and just a few years ago came in second place to the guy in a local magazine's annual poll for Best Local Author. While Green has never told the most profound stories, he tells stories that appeal to the heart and the mind and to the soul of what we want to be as human beings even amidst our tragedies.
Graveyard Girl is really such a film. It tells the story of Dahlia (Johnston), a teenaged girl who has become disconnected from her family amidst a complicated grief that time won't seem to heal. When she has a chance encounter with a grieving young man, Dennis (Giordan Diaz), during one of her regular visits to the graveyard, she begins to find the hope and strength that has been missing.
The story is, at least in the most general of ways, a familiar one. We've seen grief portrayed on the big screen over and over and over again. While they seldom make for big box-office, they do seem to resonate deeply within a certain population of moviegoer. I can still remember sitting there watching the Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer Love, Liza, a big ole' gigantic weeper of a film and how much that film, centered around addiction and the suicide of a man's wife, aided my own healing process after my own wife's suicide.
So, yeah, these films matter. In fact, it's hard not to watch this 12-minute short without thinking it could so easily become a full-length feature, though it also feels just right as a short film.
Johnston, who was, um, well, rather captivating in Captive, is even more compelling here as a young woman whose grief seems to transcend anything else in life she feels. She looks around her world and can't quite understand why those in the world around her, including her mother (Susan Hedges), sister Jenna (Bella Moscato), and Greg (Tom Archi), aren't grieving just as intensely.
In the opening scene, D.P. Rajah Samaroo's lensing is rather off-putting, though as the story unfolds it makes sense as we figure out more and more just how off-kilter Dahlia feels with the rest of the world. Stuck within inconsolable grief, Dahlia's experience of everything, from trivial comments about a meal to a younger sister's almost jarringly innocent playing, becomes amplified and almost overwhelming.
It is in the graveyard, it would seem, where Dahlia finds her peace and where Graveyard Girl is at its most relaxed.
As Dahlia, Kaitlyn captures what could be best described as the matter-of-fact nature of grief with a performance that is most effective because it feels normal. We can see the depths of Dahlia's despair, but for the most part Johnston doesn't play for unnecessary histrionics here and the scenes unfold with a deeper, more meaningful normalcy.
Giordan Diaz's turn as Dennis complements Johnston's nicely, differently shaded yet believable and maybe even a little more heartbreaking in its tone. Diaz is, perhaps, a little more unnerving because Dennis seemingly more readily wears his masks that hide his true self.
Graveyard Girl has a few really nice "moments," scenes that are often under-appreciated in films yet scenes that are absolutely essential to everything that unfolds. For me, perhaps the most meaningful involves a moment when the mother, beautifully played by Susan Hedges, discovers the depths of her daughter's despair and, by film's end, has done what every parent should do in such a moment. It's a nicely played moment that feels a tad cliche', yet it's absolutely essentially and nicely pulled off.
The recently completed Graveyard Girl is getting ready for its festival run and should have no problem finding a home on the indie fest circuit, with themes that will resonate with indie audiences and a quality in terms of production and performance that should easily allow it to stand out. If you get a chance, check it out.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic