Director: Scott Boswell (USA). Year of Release: 2021
Deep in the countryside, full of swaying grass. A train line heads out into the distance. We see a pair of feet walking along the track, briefly accompanied by another pair of sneakers. We see some strange symbols – a leather wrist band, the number 22 – before a figure appears on a bridge. As someone races towards them, the figure disappears out of view. The subdued lighting lets us know that this is all a dream.
In quick succession, we are introduced to the main protagonists. There’s Mason, a troubled teen, Molly, Mason’s sister, who is both a cute gap-toothed kid, and a passive aggressive neurotic with OCD. Mason and Molly’s father is withdrawn and potentially dangerous, and their stepmother deeply religious. Then there’s Jameson, a young African-American kid who lives with his granddad, and Mason and Molly’s sister Megan, who has escaped to work in IT in San Francisco.
As the film progresses, we learn the back story through a series of flashbacks. Mason, Molly and Megan had a brother Mitchel (we can see what you’re doing, parents), who died of an overdose, although it is unclear whether this was deliberate or an accident. Either way, we see that Mitchel was a troubled kid, increasingly dependent on the Ibuprofen tablets that he insisted Jameson bring round when he came round for a light petting session while Mitchel’s parents were out.
The parents are baptists, and so conservative that Mitchel is less worried about them knowing he has a boyfriend, let alone a Black boyfriend. He is scared that they find out that he is seeing anyone at all. His neurosis rises several notches when someone from school takes a photo of Mitchel and Jameson kissing outside. Mitchel takes his revenge, but he was wearing the clothes of his identical twin Mason, so he could skip a class. Mason ends up taking a beating.
This means that when Molly insists on a wake for Mitchel, 8 months after his death, all family members having long-standing grievances against each other. To make things more uncomfortable, Molly invites Pastor Rob and his partner and Mason, overcome with remorse sends a secret invite to Jameson. Molly insists that everything takes place according to her extensive plans, which she’s written down on colourful notepads in round girlish handwriting.
There’s a number of things that A Wake doesn’t quite get right – starting with that title. We get that it’s supposed to be a pun, but of what? Sure, it’s about a wake, but in what sense is anyone in the film awakened? It’s much more that existing prejudices are reinforced, even though everyone agrees that this is no way for a family to behave. While I’m bickering, can I just say that having the same character playing twins in split screen rarely works without it all feeling very corny?
The acting is generally competent if not spectacular. Noah Urrea who plays both Mason and Mitchel is apparently (pause for breath) a “singer, actor, composer, dancer and model”, Urrea acquits himself reasonably enough, as do most of the cast. Although “acquit themselves reasonably enough” is not something you want in large print on the posters. The exceptions are Megan Trout as Megan and especially Sofia Rosinsky as Molly who is a joy to watch.
A Wake has a tendency to take up ideas but then to dump them before anything is resolved. Mason dabbles with visiting a spiritualist and playing with a ouija board, which both help him deal with his feelings at guilt at the loss of his twin, but are dropped from the plot without explanation. The spiritualist also gives him an inadequate explanation of why he saw the number 22 in his initial dream (because 22/7 is roughly pi), and then the matter is closed with no further discussion.
For all this, the film significantly exceeds expectations. Despite its low budget, it has a clever script which avoids obvious pitfalls. It would have been very easy to make this a film about how religion fucks families up. Now religion doesn’t come out of A Wake looking great, but the devout characters are played with sympathy and understanding. Pastor Rob could have been portrayed as an evil predator, but when we first meet him, his role is more of a psychotherapist than a parasite.
The film also trusts us to draw our own conclusions. A lesser film would have taken great efforts to show us exactly how Mitchel died. We are never told whether he deliberately killed himself, although we are given a few strong hints. This helps us understand the different ways in which various family members cope – each clinging to the version of reality which helps them best deal with their loss and grief. If this means Mitchel died by accident, then so be it.
It is all rather dramatic – not in an overacting sense, but in the idea that someone could make a play out of this. Each character is troubled, and each is to some extent responsible for the chaos that unfolds in front of us. If anything, the film thinks that Philip Larkin underestimated things. It’s not just your mum and dad who fuck you up, but your siblings, your gran, and the guy down the road that half of you never met. Fully recommended family viewing.