Rating: 4 stars out of 5
After the death of his wife Marianne (Hope Davis) in a car accident, Joe (Colin Firth at his best) decides to take his two daughters Kelly (Willa Holland) and her younger sister Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) to the beautiful city of Genova to start anew. With the help from an old college friend Barbara (Catherine Keener), Joe gets a teaching gig in the local university, his daughters settle in the new surroundings, learns piano, and everything seems to be going well in the city also known as la Superba (the superb one) for its rich past.
One would expect a film revolving around the subject of death to have the popcorns accompanied with a box of Kleenex. However, director/writer Michael Winterbottom’s A Summer in Genova doesn’t go in the tearjerker direction—not once, but instead genuinely portrays how a father and his daughters deal with the loss of their mother, just like how any of us might deal with it.
Joe puts up a strong fatherly front, cooks the meals, kisses his daughters to sleep and enjoys an afternoon out on the beach. He lets his daughters do whatever they want—while as any father would do—keeps an eye on them while keeping their independence manageable. But Joe is so incisively wrapped up in his own pain that his communication with his daughters start to fail as much as his love for them shows.
Tell-tale signs of cracks start to appear as they try to lead a normal life. The rift between Joe and his daughters is played subtly but grows as the film pans out. Either listening to her iPod while her father tries to talk to her, or caught sunbathing topless while her father swims to her, Kelly’s relationship with her father speaks of a troubled one that both are oblivious to.
And Kelly doesn’t really like babysitting her sister, and she makes this obvious by often leaving her to her own devices while she takes the day off entertaining her new Italiano friends as a way of escapism.
Mary doesn’t mind, she’s cast in her own world of self-blaming for causing the death of her mother and is often haunted by her in her daily life. Mary takes on drawing to replicate the visions she sees of her mother, in a belief that the beautiful memory she held would last forever. Much credit must be given to Perla Haney-Jardine (Dark Water, Kill Bill: Vol.2, Spiderman 3) and her portrayal of a sweet, innocent, and fun-loving kid, caught in a world of emotional pain. Jardine plays it perfectly, often being herself, and it doesn’t take long to empathize with her character.
It is within this poignant relational attributes to self and the people around them that gives the film its genuine depth. And true to the belief that grief, pain and anger from a sudden loss can actually spur us to be closer to the ones we love, no matter how far we try to distance ourselves from reality.
The film is as much a psychological case study as it is a film with a plot and resolve—which the film has none of. It’s looking at a grieving family coping with loss, but doesn’t exactly show us “how” to cope with it, which makes it a beautifully genuine piece, and doesn’t come off as a therapeutic session.