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'Blackbird' review: Glancing treatment of a difficult subject

Susan Sarandon as Lily and Sam Neill as

Susan Sarandon as Lily and Sam Neill as Paul in' "Blackbird." Credit: Screen Media Films/Parisa Taghizadeh

PLOT A woman with ALS holds a family gathering before ending her life.

CAST Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson

RATED R (some language and brief drug use)

LENGTH 1:37

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE A glancing treatment of a difficult subject.

In "Blackbird," Susan Sarandon plays Lily Walker, a woman dying of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the mysterious and uncurable disease that steadily weakens muscles until even swallowing and breathing become impossible. That’s not going to happen to Lily, though. She has decided to end her life on her own schedule after gathering her family for one final goodbye.

It’s a sobering and discomfiting thought, but "Blackbird" isn’t interested in the ethics of assisted suicide or the unpretty realities of death. Written by Christian Torpe from his original Danish film "Silent Heart" and directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), "Blackbird" is a standard ensemble dramedy, the kind in which various characters are brought together by a funeral, wedding or major holiday so they can bicker, banter, heal wounds and find closure. Such movies usually try to elicit a few tears along with the laughs. "Blackbird" has it the other way around.

"Blackbird" introduces us to a familiar cast of characters. Lily’s uptight daughter, Jennifer (Kate Winslet), arrives with her milquetoast husband, Michael (Rainn Wilson), and their withdrawn teenager, Jonathan (Anson Boon). There’s another daughter, flighty Anna (Mia Wasikowska), who brings her on-again-off-again lover, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus, a performer who identifies as non-binary). Lily’s old college friend, Liz (an underused Lindsay Duncan), is on hand for moral support. Meanwhile, Lily’s husband, Paul (the great Sam Neill), a doctor, provides his wife with quiet strength.

These dynamics have dramatic potential, but "Blackbird" can’t quite make them ring true. The blow-ups feel staged, the bonding moments contrived. (At one point, Lily demands that her family recreate a Christmas dinner even though it’s summer; cue the father-son hunt for the perfect tree.) Michell seems to know the material doesn't work, because he cuts constantly to wordless montages of the Walkers playing charades, eating dinner, passing around a contraband joint and so on. These aren't proper scenes, they're just shorthand for emotion.

That’s too bad, because the cast is top-notch. Sarandon is radiant, if slightly resting on her laurels. (How many times have we seen her play the aging Baby Boomer who’s hipper than she looks?), and Neill can convey a deep intelligence just by gazing at a sunrise. One surprise here is Wilson, who trades his comedic chops for dramatic ones and turns a minor role into a full-fledged character with dignity and vulnerability. It’s a nice bit of acting that gets lost among some of the louder performances.

By the way, why is this film called "Blackbird?" No one ever mentions the animal or even says the word. I’m only guessing, but the title feels like a reference to the classic Beatles song with the aching melody. In other words, more emotional shorthand.

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