I have to admit I found this one a snoozefest.
What? You are obviously a Philistine who cannot appreciate the depth and subtlety of this film!
Of course I'm a Philistine. But that's beside the point.
The illusion of this movie’s profundity is created, I guess, by the fact that it takes on serious questions—the impact of dementia on a family and how people wrestle with the gradual loss of a loved one. The depth, however, remains illusory because even though this serious and painful topic is introduced, it is never developed.
The problem is that the script is poorly constructed. We never really learn much of anything about these three generations of women, their family, or their lives together prior to this crisis. More importantly, we also learn little of their lives together in the present: the situation the movie depicts is essentially static (that is, until the symbolic events of the last fifteen minutes or so). We see them milling around the house together. We are shown moments of tension, even conflict, but they go nowhere. We are shown that Kay and Sam have different ideas about what to do with the problems Edna is confronting, but that storyline disappears and the tension is never explored. Most of the movie did little or nothing to examine its central questions; instead, it seemed content to repeat them, ad nauseum, with an excess of dull dream sequences that led nowhere, overly-dark footage, and ominous music in order to make it “spooky.” (It’s not).
Let’s put it this way. When I was in high school, I wrote a research paper on Alzheimer’s. That, of course, does not make me an expert on the topic. I’m not. But that highlights the problem: despite the fact that I have lots to learn on the topic, I don’t think my perspective or understanding regarding the impacts of dementia on individuals and families was enhanced at all by watching this movie. I suspect that’s because, ultimately, writer/director Natalie Erika James doesn’t really have much to tell us. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not complaining here about the lack of a “message” in the movie. I’m complaining about a lack of exploration and depth.
That’s a bit rough and not entirely true. In fairness to James, there was one moment that I found genuinely frightening and thought-provoking. Toward the end of the movie, Sam gets lost in some uncharted region of Grandma’s house, which is a bit too large and mutable to be taken as literal. The house becomes a model of the crazy, disorienting world where nothing is where it should be, or even what it should be. It was, for me, the movie’s one good stroke—an all-too-rare moment of insight that made me reflect on what life in that house must be like for Edna, whose unreliable memory must make every walk down the hall a confusing nightmare.
I would have liked the movie better, I think, if James had left things there--maybe sending Kay off on her own on a similar journey and ending with all three of them lost and alone in their own cluttered, forgotten hallways. Alas, no. Sam finds way her back to the “normal” house, and there’s a “final” conflict with an Edna (who is clearly no longer herself) that enables Kay and Sam to escape. Kay, however, turns back in the end to help her mother. Or perhaps I should say, to help the director. By turning back, Kay helps James deliver her message to the audience (because, predictably enough, there is one): dementia can change a person into someone you don’t know, but you should still love and care for them--even when it isn’t easy. As messages go, I guess that’s a good one. But it’s something that I knew long before I sat down to watch Relic.