Dan Levy found such massive success in “Schitt’s Creek” that figuring out the next step for his career must have been daunting. It therefore feels uncoincidental that his feature film directorial debut is also about next steps, moving on after a major chapter has closed, whether you want to or not.
Levy has a strong on-screen presence—he’s a remarkably natural, likable performer—but he struggles a bit to find his voice as a writer and director with “Good Grief,” a modest study of the impact of loss that pushes a few buttons harder than it should and fails to fill out its ensemble equally. When this well-cast dramedy allows its characters to breathe and simply exist, it highlights Levy’s future strengths as a filmmaker, making it a promising launch for the Emmy winner into the film world, even as I hope he trusts his actors (and his audience) more in future projects.
“Good Grief” opens at a Christmas party hosted by Marc (Levy) and his husband Oliver (Luke Evans), a famous writer whose books have been turned into massive blockbusters a la “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight.” In fact, he’s so beloved that he has to rush off to a book signing at the Louvre that very night, leaving the party early. Marc and the partygoers see the lights from the responding officers to the car crash that takes Oliver’s life, sending Marc into a spiral of grief. Marc has been here before, noting early in the film how he escaped the pain of his mother’s death when he started a relationship with Oliver. Marc also has a habit of trying to label himself, saying early on that he’s now an orphan and a widower. The best aspects of “Good Grief” try to deconstruct those simple terms, revealing how everyone is more complex than even they think they are.
The real drama of “Good Grief” comes a year after Oliver’s death, when Marc finally has the nerve to open his Christmas card from 12 months ago, only to discover that Oliver was confessing to an affair and wanted to talk about their future. What happens to grief when it collides with betrayal? A few other plot spins and Marc discovers that Oliver had an apartment in Paris, where he was headed to meet his lover the night he died. In an effort to close some emotional loops, Marc goes to France with his two best friends, Sophie (Ruth Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel), a pair who have struggled in their own lives, but seem to honestly want nothing but peace for their friend, even if he doesn’t tell them exactly why they’re going on this trip because, “movie”.
Levy has said that he wanted to make a film about a makeshift family, and that aspect comes through in the warm performances from the always-great Negga and Patel, but it’s also one of the script’s weaknesses in that you don’t get to fully know these characters as much as you should. Yes, they get their own growth arcs, but they’re largely mirrors for Marc, as is a new relationship that Marc falls into in Paris, which is when the film really starts to drag. The impetus to give Marc new love is understandable, but it feels forced, a way to let him define old relationships through a new one when a riskier version of “Good Grief” would allow him to find his own path in a less predictable way. Levy’s script too often seems as lost as Marc, grasping at plot threads and cliches to give it the momentum it often lacks.
“Good Grief” also has a habit of sinking into its lead’s melancholy a tad too much—which is another reason Sophie and Thomas don’t feel real in that they’re just reflections of Marc’s journey. It’s the kind of film that has a character put on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, a decision that is loaded with poignant commentary but is also a little too on the nose. Honestly, “Good Grief” could have leaned even harder into pure melodrama, but it gets stuck in this gray area in which its two-dimensional supporting characters make it not quite realism yet also not emotionally fraught enough to be anything else.
And yet empathizing with these broken people might be enough for some viewers. Again, I’m eager to see what Levy’s next phase looks like, and I would watch Ruth Negga in just about anything. “Good Grief” is at its best when it plays to its performers’ strengths. For too much of the time, it’s just fine.
In limited release today. On Netflix on January 5th.