Sunday, May 18, 2014

Return to Zero (Cannonball Productions, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Return to Zero was a fascinating movie, written and directed by Sean Hanish and, according to its opening credits, based on a true story — though it’s not until the ending, with a dedication to “the memory of” someone named Norbert Hanish whose birth date is given but whose death date is not, that it becomes clear the true story it’s based on is one that happened to the writer/director and his own family. It’s a story that begins with a bucolically happy suburban family — husband Aaron Royal (Paul Adelstein) is working for his father Robert (Alfred Molina) in what appears to be an architectural firm that designs only medical buildings, and his wife Maggie (Minnie Driver, top-billed, and the sort of genuinely talented actress who’s just missed getting on the “A”-list) is a sort of New Age therapist who gives her clients stale bromides about how everything’s right with the world and if they just visualize what they want, they shall have it. She’s also in the later stages of pregnancy and is looking forward to giving birth and being a mother to her son Arthur — they’ve not only done the sonogram to determine the baby’s gender, they’ve already named him — when suddenly, during what was supposed to be a routine prenatal-care visit, the nurse examining her summons the doctor and the doctor says he can’t find the baby’s heartbeat. It takes Maggie (and us) a few minutes to realize what that means: her baby-to-be has died, suddenly and mysteriously, in her womb, and when the doctor and nurse explain it to her, their presentation of her options (induced labor or a C-section), and their urging that she and her husband spend some time hugging the baby after it comes out of her, even though it’s dead, their questions seem so banal on top of the trauma they’re going through that they just trivialize the whole experience and make them even angrier.

Return to Zero has its flaws — notably Hanish being too old-line Hollywood (albeit in 2014 form rather than 1934 or 1954 form) to resist guying the emotions, with sappy soft-rock songs on the soundtrack and a few blatant plot devices that undercut the sincerity of his script and remind us that this is, after all, only a movie. But those are trivial compared with its strengths. Adelstein and Driver are absolutely perfect for their roles — after a while we forget that they’re acting and respond to them as if they were real people caught up in such a dreadful situation — and the descent into hell Hanish sends his characters down is all the more believable for being paved with the well-intentioned by ridiculously banal, at best inadequate and at worst insulting, comments of those around the Royals who stay the stupidest things thinking that they’re helping. Maggie’s own mother insults her (unwittingly) by saying that she needs to accept the death of her unborn son as part of God’s divine plan — “How can God’s divine plan include something that’s so shaken me it’s undercut my belief in Him?” Maggie understandably responds after she sort-of gets over responding to her mom’s incredible insensitivity — and there’s also a choice scene in which a woman who’d been a client of Maggie’s presents her with a single macaroon, product of her first day in cooking school, a dream she was encouraged to pursue by Maggie’s banal “therapy,” only to find that Maggie no longer believes in all the New Age crap people like the client paid her to spew in their direction. There’s also a traumatic scene in which Maggie’s friend Kathleen Callaghan (Kathy Baker), who was pregnant when Maggie was, went to the parenting classes with her and had her baby alive, healthy and on schedule, gives Maggie her child to hold — and Maggie presents a brave front under all the emotional churning she must be going through under the circumstances.

The stress of having lost a child in such a traumatic and unusual way (though one of the points the script makes is that stillbirth is a lot more common than most people realize — and during the film Maggie several times has to correct people who call what happened to her a “miscarriage,” which it was not) sends Maggie’s and Aaron’s relationship onto the rocks; both start drinking way more than is good for them (and Maggie also takes up smoking; as she’s puffing away on a cigarette and downing a glass of wine at the same time, it’s hard not to think that she’s deliberately breaking away from the no-nicotine, no-alcohol, no-caffeine regimen imposed on her by modern medical thought on how pregnant women should behave) and Aaron drifts into an affair with his dykey-looking secretary Dana (Sarah Jones), who’s on the rebound from another relationship with a married man whom she thought — wrongly — was going to leave his wife for her. In the middle of all this Aaron and Maggie take a vacation together in Las Vegas, which seems mainly to be an excuse for the two of them to pound away at each other and try to have one last fling as a romantic — or at least sexual — couple before circumstances and their lingering traumas tear them apart, only the inevitable (at least in movies) happens and Maggie once again finds herself “with child.” Burdened by the history of their past attempt at procreation as well as the on-the-rocks state of their marriage, Aaron and Maggie attempt a reconciliation but, though they move back in together, do so in a guarded fashion more like the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War than anything resembling a normal (even a normally unhappy) marriage. This time they’re so scared by Maggie’s “high-risk” status (since she lost her previous baby) and so determined not to get emotionally involved with their baby-to-be lest the same thing happen again that they don’t do the pre-natal screening to determine the baby’s gender, so it’s a surprise to us as well as them that it’s a girl. Along the way Maggie’s only source of comfort has been the revelation by two people close to her — first her female doctor (Connie Nielsen, who as bad as she was in Gladiator is actually rather good here), then her own mom — that they went through pregnancies that ended in stillbirths but had other, healthy children (including, in her mom’s case, Maggie herself) after that. Hanish can’t resist calling Aaron out of a big presentation on which the future of his and his dad’s company depends because Maggie’s labor has started and this time he is determined to be there at the birth of his child, but the baby is duly born, it’s a girl, and life presumably goes on.

The review that turned up on the page came from a public screening of the film in March (that its makers, Cannonball Films, had a theatrical release in mind is shown by the dirty words — several instances of “shit” and its derivatives which Lifetime actually kept in, as well as one “fuck” they bleeped) and came from a writer whose wife and himself had gone through a similar experience — “We lost our twins, Marshall and Spencer, ten months ago on May 2 of 2013. They were born perfectly healthy at 22 weeks 3 days, but they just weren’t ready for life outside of the womb. They each lived for only an hour. When we left the hospital without our boys we came home to a life that was forever changed” — and who obviously responded to the movie as a parable explaining to any of their friends who might not understand what happened to them from that experience how it affected them and how they had to continue regardless. One could wish Sean Hanish had avoided some of the cheap, all too clichéd movie-ish plot devices with which he peppered his plot and concentrated on the real issue here — not only the traumas of his main characters but also how counterproductive most efforts from friends and well-meaning strangers are to help you over your grief — but within the limits of his movie-bread imagination he and his cast (particularly his two leads) actually did a damned good job of telling the story they needed to tell and bringing it home, emotionally, to the viewer. Return to Zero came through emotionally for me much the way I suspect Sean Hanish intended — even though the breaks for commercials were more jarring than usual and I can’t help thinking this very good movie would seem even better if seen theatrically or on DVD, without interruptions!