Rare is the end-of-life melodrama that doesn’t traffic in “Disease of the Week/Weeper of the Week” cliches. “Lullaby” certainly does.
But this terminal illness tale rises above the form, mainly thanks to a stellar cast and a refusal to drift into maudlin, a film that saves its big emotions for a wrenching finale that it earns.
Garrett Hedlund plays Jonathan, a young musician used to getting his by on his looks and charm. Sparkle those eyes a little and stewardesses won’t arrest him for smoking in the lavatory of the plane that is taking him to the side of his dying father.
The first sign that baby blues won’t deliver, this time, is when a too-sassy nurse (Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson) berates the chain smoker for “bringing that into MY hospital.” She doesn’t care what crutches he needs to face his father’s death. Dad (Richard Jenkins) has accepted it.
“I’m done. My body is ruined.” All he wants is to “look at you all with clear eyes one last time,” but his son isn’t having it. And neither is Jonathan’s sister, Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay), a lawyer who isn’t keen on dad’s plan to turn off life support and end his life with some dignity, an effort his wife/their mother (Anne Archer) supports, with tears. So does his doctor (Terrence Howard), also with tears.
Did I mention Dad’s battle has been going on for over twenty years? Disease fatigue, the trauma of living under the cloud of death that has been hanging over the old man, may be in play. So might the realization that Dad, a pillar of the New York business community, may have a fortune to pass on. That isn’t why Karen has her legal briefs in a bunch, but it could be.
Enter the sick teenager in a different ward. Jessica Barden plays Meredith, 17, bald and doomed, bumming a cigarette off Jonathan and dumping a little wisdom on him the way such wise children do in such movies.
“If you think he wants to die, you’re wrong,” she counsels. “If he says he’s not in pain, he’s lying.”
Things come to a head as all must rally to organize one last Passover Seder for Dad (they’re Jewish). Distant relations and friends flood the hospital, further confusing the kids. Who ARE these people?
“They watched you get circumcised.”
Can Meredith take part?
“Are you Jewish? I’ll pour some Manischewitz…”
Writer-director Andrew Levitas put the burden of keeping the tone light but grim on Jenkins and Barden, and it pays off as both players manage a fine balance between amusing and pitiful. Hudson’s nurse may be using her “Oh no you DIDN’T” sass to cope with the death all around her. And Hedlund, using some of his “Country Strong” musical chops and his headstrong “Tron” youthful blundering, makes Jonathan a compelling surrogate for the audience, a man dealing, uncertainly, with death for the first time in his privileged life.
Thanks to them, “Lullaby” works. They don’t so much add new words to this familiar song as manage to not botch this interpretation of it.
MPAA Rating:R for language and brief drug use
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Jessica Barden, Richard Jenkins, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anne Archer, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Levitas. An Arc Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:57