Grief is not an easy or straightforward road to travel.
That much becomes abundantly clear in the opening minutes of Tumbledown by directing-writing duo Sean Mewshaw and Desiree Van Til when Hannah Miles (Rebecca Hall), who is still mired in the grief of losing her folk singer husband Hunter two years earlier in a hiking accident, rather aggressively rips apart the leather-bound notebook of Andrew McCabe (Jason Sudeikis), a New York college professor who has come to her small Maine town seeking to write about Hunter as the quintessential member of a lost-too-soon creative elite.
Hannah, however, while acutely aware of her husband’s stature as a revered singer-songwriter whose lone 12 song album is considered an unassailable classic of the genre, wants nothing to do with the cityslicker interloper, convinced he is yet another journalist intent on mining her husband’s memory for their own gain.
As first impressions go, it’s not up there with the best, and it looks for the first part of the film at least, which sees McCabe, who is a passionately genuine Hunter Miles fan, regretfully head back to New York, that there is little to no chance of Hannah, awash in a grief which shows no sign of abating, acceding to Andrew’s request.
But then she reads the first draft of his chapter on Miles, and realises that her is a man who seems to get something that many others don’t; while it doesn’t completely eradicate the less-than-favourable first impression, it does go someway to ameliorating Hannah’s acerbically-laced assessment of Andrew who is given the gig of writing Hunter’s biography.
If any of this sounds like some of sort of extended indie “Meet Cute”, it is in a kind of way but the script by Van Til is so intelligently and thoughtfully realised that there is nothing clumsily rom-com about the set-up.
For a start, hovering over the joint endeavour of writing the biography – Hannah insists that she play an equal part in bringing Hunter’s story to the masses – is the ghost of her husband, whose musical knickknacks fill their house and whose sealed-up recording studio sits down the hill, a silent sentinel to his closely-guarded memory.
It’s this well-considered representation of grief, which knows no exact timeline nor easy resolution – assuming there is ever a true end to grieving the loss of a loved on which anyone who has gone through the process will know is likely answered in the negative – that forms the heart and soul of this remarkably affecting, heartfelt and yes, funny movie.
Hannah’s grief is acknowledged by everyone around her, although for most people bar her close friend and the local bookstore owner played by Griffin Dunne it is more in the vein “When will she get over it?” than anything else, but it is rarely taken seriously.
Her mother, played by Blythe Danner, mourns Hunter’s loss too, describing him to McCabe at one point as “her son”, but is brusquely if lovingly insistent that it is time Hannah got on with her life.
Apart from occasional trysts with her high school buddy Curtis (Joe Manganiello) who she admits is good for sex but not much else, Hannah isn’t ready to move on, and while you could argue two years is long enough to hold onto grief, Tumbledown is careful to observe that mourning is a singularly individual road that must be travelled alone.
And that is its real beauty.
It allows grief and its many permutations and perceptions to have full, eloquent vent, with all the characters, most particularly Hannah and Andrew, who come to find in each other the soulmate neither was actually expecting, coming to understand how you can hold onto a memory of the past, in this case a substantial Hunter Miles-sized one, without it completely overshadowing the present or the future.
It’s not an easy road granted, and the initial interactions between Hannah and Andrew, who though brashly enthusiastic about his musical idol to the point of being inadvertently insensitive to where Hannah is grief-wise is still refreshingly rendered as a decent, sweet guy, suggest that it may be one without any kind of end.
But an ending is found but not before Hannah is allowed to work through her grief in a way that makes sense to her, to find a way to use “all the love left in her arsenal” and to honour Hunter’s memory in a way that respects who she once was with him, but also allows her to move forward.
The landscape of wintery Maine is used incredibly effectively, added an additional insularity to Hannah’s emotional entombment while providing a breathtaking beautiful backdrop to the storyline.
Music too plays a major role in the film, as you would expect, with the songs by indie singer/songwriter Damien Jurado, who sings with the kind of heartfelt evocation that helps you to appreciate why it is Hunter is so revered and why Hannah fell for him and holds so tightly to his memory.
Tumbledown rarely puts a foot wrong, balancing light, witty scenes with deeply reflective, sometimes painfully sad ones, all of them given an authentic emotional resonance by the sublime chemistry between Hall and Sudeikis who make you believe they are antagonists who slowly, and with some missteps on both their parts, come to be something else entirely.
It’s rare to find a romantic story like this that is so deeply respectful of the road that grief takes you on, that understands its unfathomable twists and turns but that also acknowledges there is also a way out of it, when the mourner is ready and not before.
If you want to see what life really is like when grief takes hold and then loosens its grip, and how the still open wound of the past can become part of a whole and functioning present with laughter along the way (Sudeikis gets the lion’s share of the witty retorts though Hall more than holds her own) then Tumbledown is the sort of indie film you should run, not walk to, a feast for the head and the heart, and a touching lesson in the perilous but rewarding act of moving on.