Rudderless is the grief movie of Sundance. I must be an enigma to some readers because I criticize important movies that exploit tragedy, but revel in movies that deal with grief. Well, Rudderless is a great case study in what I want in a drama. It turns grief into vitality and tragedy into beauty.
When Josh (Miles Heizer) is killed in a school shooting, his father Sam (Billy Crudup) does his best to keep going, but it gets worse before it gets any better. When he discovers a box of songs Josh recorded, Sam plays one at an open mic night. A local fanboy Quentin (Anton Yelchin) harasses him until Sam agrees to play together, and they ultimately form a band named Rudderless because Sam lives on a boat.
This is not about keeping Josh’s spirit alive though. Rudderless is way deeper than that. Death and loss never goes away. They come back and intervene powerfully with the story. Some good can come from bad, and some bad things need to be faced. Seeing Sam come back to life is rewarding, but when he finally cries he’s earned it, and we need it too by that point.
The music rocks, the performances are fun. The band continues adding elements so we can hear them get noticeably better. On a purely musical underdog level, any good band has a complicated leader and this is a strong demonstration of what makes someone conflicted about their talent, and how hard it is for other artists to understand that.
The levity really ebbs and flows with the tragedy. Sam is a smartass, but watching him teach Quentin to talk to girls is endearing, mainly because he’s pushing the “just talk to them” angle, not any peacocking or negging. The bandmates get some good lines too.
As director, William H. Macy must have learned from Paul Thomas Anderson because he creates dynamic scenes and camera moves, from the media swarm in the immediate aftermath of Josh’s death, to a montage of performances in which one fluid shot cuts into the next. Wow.
“Wow” is a what I was thinking throughout Rudderless. Wow that the screenplay by Macy, Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter dealt with tragedy in such a classy way, expanded on grief to make it constructive and balanced the fun and heart with sensitivity. Wow that a simple story about music and humanity looked so elegant. Wow that the songs made me happy even though I knew they came from a sad place. Wow that both the opening and closing night selections of Sundance were such powerful films. Just wow.