No, not the famous Joan Didion essay (strange, to pick such a famous title. Kind of like that recent Vanessa Hudgens’ movie called Gimme Shelter. Although maybe MacLachlan is consciously connecting his movie to Didion’s essay?)
I wrote about this film a couple months ago, when I screened it for the Gotham Awards, and at the time, it had no release date. Goodbye to All That is coming out in limited release starting today, so I wanted to push this review to the forefront.
Title (and terrible poster) aside, Goodbye to All That, written and directed by Angus MacLachlan (who wrote the wonderful Junebug) is a beautiful and strange little story about a man named Otto (Paul Schneider). Otto is not a bad guy. He loves his 9-year-old daughter Edie (Audrey P. Scott), loves to participate in road races, has a lot of enthusiasm for things, he thinks his marriage to Annie (Melanie Lynskey) is pretty good, he’s got a good job, you know, he’s doing good! But from the very first scene, when he wipes out after crossing the finish line in a 10k, you get the sense that things are not really … okay with this guy. The next scene shows him careening through the woods on a little open land-rover with his daughter. At least she’s wearing a helmet. They’re having a blast! Until they crash into a tree, and Otto’s foot is so messed up as a result that he may actually have to get it amputated. Mother and daughter walk down the hospital hall together, and daughter says, in a really worried voice, the kind of voice you never want to hear from a 9-year-old: “Why do these things always happen to daddy?”
Goodbye To All That doesn’t really answer Edie’s question but it presents the problem. Otto is accident-prone. If you know accident-prone people then you know the frustration of having to deal with their continual mishaps. Much of it is not their fault. But at some point, accidents occur because the person getting in the accident is not paying attention. What happens when you live your whole life not paying attention to it? Otto honestly thinks he’s paying attention. That’s the beauty of Schneider’s performance. He’s not a jerk. He’s not overtly selfish. But on some cellular level, he is in a fog. And so disasters continue to befall him because he doesn’t think things through beforehand. Other people may bump their head when their little jeep crashes. Otto’s foot is so wrecked he may lose it. The doctor scares the shit out of him, telling him to stop taking runs every day, do you WANT to lose the foot? Otto, though, thinks: Come on, I gotta still take a run every day, how else am I supposed to get exercise?
Otto is a grown man but has somehow missed the memo that life is short and you have to pay attention to it in order to 1. survive it and 2. get the most out of it. So he misses things. In another early scene, right after the land-rover accident, his wife summons him to have a meeting with her therapist. Otto’s reply is a confused, “You have a therapist?” In the meeting with the therapist, Otto is informed that his marriage is over. He is completely blindsided. He wants to talk to Annie about it, but she keeps looking at the therapist who answers for her: “No. This is over. Time to move on.” Otto can’t believe it! His marriage fell apart and he didn’t even notice it happening. Annie is an immovable wall. She doesn’t even want to speak to Otto. Anything he has to say to her should be said through their lawyers. Otto blusters around, “Wait, what??? What happened??”
Otto is in the passenger seat of his own life. He doesn’t even realize it. He has to move out of his house, all with the busted foot. He suddenly realizes that Annie is starting to restrict his access to Edie. He panics. But then he slowly figures out that the situation is much more dire. Edie doesn’t feel safe with her dad. She sits on the counter watching him cook pasta for her, holding the recipe up and out, basically over the open flame, and you can see Edie take it all in. She already knows that you have to look a little bit down the road with every choice you make, even cooking pasta, and he’s so busy blabbing to her that he’s not realizing the water is boiling over. She has to remind him. Other things happen. His house is broken into and he’s robbed. He starts to date, and he has a series of bizarre encounters with freaky-deaky women he meets online.
There are times when Edie wakes up and hears her father having sex with some lady in the other room. She doesn’t want to stay there anymore. And yet at other times, she bursts into tears and clings to him, “Please don’t leave me, Daddy!” It’s heartbreaking. She senses that something really bad could happen to her father. Something REALLY bad. Otto is completely dazed that his daughter would see him that way.
There’s no real formal structure to the film. It’s a series of unfortunate events, basically. The acting is so strong, and the mood of the film, set by MacLachlan is so sure and steady, that it never loses its way. It’s a character study, my favorite kind of film. Otto is a man who doesn’t understand that he needs to get into the driver’s seat, in moments big and small. His wife is a piece of work, let me tell you, and I couldn’t help but think that Otto dodged a bullet with that broad. But his daughter. There are the real stakes. That relationship is in peril. And what does Otto plan on DOING about it? Can an accident-prone man basically decide to stop having so many accidents?
Goodbye To All That is quiet, sometimes uproarious, and often extremely sad. The young actress playing Edie is so wonderful, her sharp worried little eyes looking around at her father’s life, and knowing … somehow … that something bad is going to happen to her while she is under his care. Otto is so clueless he doesn’t catch it. He doesn’t get it. The film is not didactic. It is not the slow methodical journey towards a man taking responsibility for himself. The film is messier than that. I appreciate its mess. People come and go, they enter Otto’s life and then exit, sometimes screaming at him about something he’s done, all as he looks on, completely baffled.
The final moment of the film, however, the small coda placed on the story as the credits begin to roll, was so poignant that I gasped when it came onscreen. It’s a small triumph, and (most likely) temporary, but it was hopeful, in an extremely chastened way.
New Yorkers: It’s playing at the IFC Center.