The death of a young woman sends a family down memory lane in Stephen Moyer’s affecting debut

The Parting Glass

Source: Edinburgh International Film Festival

The Parting Glass

Dir: Stephen Moyer. USA. 2018. 96mins

A patchwork portrait of a troubled young woman is assembled from the recollections of her family members in this superbly acted ensemble road movie. The directorial debut of actor Stephen Moyer, the film was written by and stars his True Blood colleague Denis O’Hare, who based the screenplay on his own family’s experiences following the death of his younger sister. The role of Colleen, the late sister, is filled by another True Blood alumnus, Anna Paquin, who crafts a fully fleshed out, mercurial character despite only being glimpsed in the shattered fragments of often painful memories.

The stingingly perceptive screenplay is particularly strong on capturing the banal details which become invested with meaning following a death

The film’s world premiere in the International competition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival will be followed by a slot at Karlovy Vary, and further festival interest seems likely. Sales to distributors or VOD platforms looking for quality drama should follow, particularly given a marketable cast list which practically screams prestige package: O’Hare and Paquin are joined by Melissa Leo, Cynthia Nixon, Rhys Ifans and Ed Asner.

There’s often something uniquely satisfying about films which deal with adult siblings reconnecting, and this is certainly the case here. A shared childhood results in a kind of communication shorthand, in which a single word or observation can open a door to a rediscovered family narrative. Long nurtured tensions and grudges are rekindled, as are allegiances. There’s a tonal kinship with Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages: bleak humour and boisterous banter defuses the tragic circumstances which draw this family back together.

O’Hare plays Daniel, a gay theatre actor and second youngest of a group of Irish-American siblings. It is a character that O’Hare has clearly based closely on himself; it’s mainly through his eyes, and his smartphone snapshots, that we view the unfolding journey. Absurdity and tragedy are fellow travellers: Daniel and his two sisters Mare (Cynthia Nixon) and Al (Melissa Leo) find themselves regressing into a kind of cynical teenage hilarity as their pugnacious father Tommy (Ed Asner) butts heads with Colleen’s hapless ex-husband Karl (Rhys Ifans).

The siblings jostle for position, competing for ownership of the legends that surround their younger sister. But the internecine bickering shuts down, and the family instinctively closes ranks against any outsiders. And despite being woven into the fabric of the family by marriage, Karl is very much the outsider, the butt of covertly shared wry smiles and in-jokes.

A three car convoy takes the group to Columbia, Missouri in the dead of winter. A dusting of snow and a leaden winter sky lends the film a colour palette of soulful greys and blues. The purpose of the trip is to collect Colleen’s effects; through it, the various family members achieve some degree of understanding and acceptance of what led to her death.

The stingingly perceptive screenplay is particularly strong on capturing the banal details which become invested with meaning following the death of a loved one. Mare tearfully clutches a half-consumed bag of crisps, unable to throw them away because “maybe they were the last thing she was eating.” Tommy buries his face in a scarf, for a moment capturing his daughter’s presence through her scent clinging to her clothing.

Most poignant is a clip of film that Daniel finds on his sister’s phone. She is helping him run lines for an audition, words penned by Chekhov filled now with added significance. It’s a wrenching device which allows Colleen to have the final say in a film filled with the words of her family members.

Production companies: CASM Films

International sales: Concourse Media

Producers: Cerise Hallam Larkin, Mark Larkin, Stephen Moyer, Denis O’Hare, Anna Paquin

Screenplay: Denis O’Hare

Production Design: Mark Larkin

Editing: Todd Sandler

Cinematography: Guy Godfree

Music: Nathan Barr

Main cast: Denis O’Hare, Ed Asner, Cynthia Nixon, Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans, Anna Paquin