Film Review: 'What Children Do' directed by Dean Peterson

What Children Do

This sharp-edged comedy is essentially a family drama, which draws much of its humour from the sad, painful, or irritating interactions between close relatives.

What Children Do gets laughs by taking the most awful aspects of family drama and exaggerating them to the point of farce – usually without losing the sombre or even tragic qualities of each event, and their power to change lives. It’s an approach that alternately works very well, and falls short, making for a sometimes entertaining but very uneven finished product. Hampered by its lack of big names and production company promotion, it was released only at a very few US film festivals (at two of which it took a jury award), but has recently become available digitally and on DVD. It is something of a breakthrough for the film’s writer, director, producer, and film editor, Dean Peterson, who previously had turned out only a single, virtually unknown comedy (Incredibly Small, 2010) and a few short pieces (including a modest little 2014 documentary short which has become extremely popular on YouTube, called Stop Telling Women to Smile). 

The story follows sisters Amy and Shannon, who are staying at the home of their beloved grandmother, who is near death. The unnamed, mostly comatose grandmother is played by Mary Looram, who coincidentally may be best known for playing another dying grandmother, in television series Orange Is The New Black. The two are set up as an obvious odd couple. Amy (Nicole Rodenburg) is a scattered, emotional would-be actress, barely supporting herself in Los Angeles; while Shannon (Grace Rex), a librarian, is reliable and sensible but dissatisfied with her often dull life. Their mutual jealousy and unspoken competition is revealed in subtle ways: through mild verbal sparring over who has a better job, who has more friends, although at first everything is subtext. The action is driven by Amy’s erratic and extreme outlook and behaviour, her flamboyance and tendency to demand attention, which Shannon quietly resents. Both actresses get the silent conflict across nicely, and Nicole Rodenburg’s portrayal of the madly irresponsible, egotistical, and unrealistic Amy is often hilarious. 

Forced by circumstances to work together, the two sisters try to step up and prepare for their grandmother’s demise. Their meeting with the old woman’s pastor (John Early) features an outwardly benign but entertainingly passive-aggressive clergyman who indirectly insults the sisters, ostensibly by accident, then forcibly baptizes both women with seltzer, in one of many uncomfortable but funny scenes. Early’s version of the clergyman is particularly funny and effective, with its combination of almost aggressive niceness and barely-hidden judgment and guile. As issues and people from the sisters’ past begin to resurface, emotions build, in different ways for each sister. Shannon’s orderly life becomes disrupted in a series of unexpected ways, and she is annoyed to find that being the responsible family member is not enough to guarantee good luck and happiness. Amy, meanwhile, expends a great deal of effort rather absurdly trying to play up her career and personal success, even to total strangers, seemingly trying to convince herself as much as others. When she is invited to speak at a local drama class, she is an abject failure, pathetically demonstrating her lack of talent and knowledge about acting. She then unexpectedly performs a brilliant impromptu scene, only because she is spontaneously expressing her hidden feelings about her sister.

Following the inevitable confrontation with Shannon, Amy is moved to try and reconnect with her dying grandmother, impulsively and unwisely taking her by wheelchair to a favourite childhood spot. This scene may be the high point of the film, one in which Amy indulges in a nicely contrived fantasy conversation with her barely conscious grandmother, in which the old woman, in Amy’s thoughts, becomes coherent and healthy, soothes Amy’s guilt and encourages her. The outing ends in disaster, but leads indirectly to both sisters coming to face facts and reach long-delayed conclusions about where they want their lives to go, leading to a realistically satisfying ending.

The emotional turmoil, combined with the impact of grief and its effect on Shannon and Amy’s barely surviving family bond, is touching even while combined with satire and a farcical level of chaos. The film is imperfect but often hilarious, and clever in its indirect way of revealing inner feelings and hidden struggles. More good work can be expected for both director and co-stars.