Grief unleashes self-centered bluster instead of contemplative sorrow in the talky drama Childless. Four relatives preparing to attend a funeral focus less on the sudden death of sixteen-year-old Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) and more on relationship anxieties.
Mary (Diane Venora) envisions an awkward reunion with ex-boyfriend Richard (Joe Mantegna), Katherine’s stunned father, while his sister Natalie (Barbara Hershey) contemplates her future with distant husband Harvey (James Naughton). Writer-director Charlie Levi airs their musings as a series of monologues, and even Katherine gets in on the act.
With a surprising lightness, Dreyfuss plays her as a blithe spirit free from earthly worries, unlike the exasperating adults fixated on their own concerns. Naughton handles the direct-to-camera addresses with the most ease, expressing Harvey’s selfishness as insouciance. In a delicious performance, Venora bites into her monologues with relish as she lays bare Mary’s irksome qualities. The introspection of Mantegna and Hershey, meanwhile, doesn’t fully dispel the shallowness of siblings Richard and Natalie, who are always too mindful of outward appearances. Levi maintains this juggling act until the final minutes, when confident internal reflecting gives way to awkward conversation (and heated confrontation).
His audacious debut feature was shot in 2008, and still feels contemporary despite dated flip-phones. The uncomfortable truths of these unpleasant people can be revelatory, especially when the childless Mary and Natalie dig into their strained interactions with Katherine. Richard sees parenthood through the lens of relentlessly sunny home movies, but these women recognize that familial bonding doesn’t necessarily come naturally.