RTF Film Review: ‘LIFE ITSELF Is A Deeply Moving Tale of Loss, Love, And Rebirth‘
By Mario-Francisco Robles (@I_AM_MFR)
Life Itself wrecked me.
Walking in, I didn’t know what to expect other than, “This is from the This Is Us guy, so I’m probably going to cry at one point or another.” But that was really it. And, as it turns out, that was by design.
The film is designed around one central conceit: The unreliable narrator.
As such, the film contains a series of fake-outs, and is one big metaphor for the way stories constantly evolve depending on who’s telling them and how they interpret what’s happening. Because of that, the film’s marketing has had to keep some of its narrative trickery a secret in order to not spoil the creativity of Life Itself‘s central storytelling mechanism.
That’s why you won’t be getting a plot synopsis from me, as I’d never dream of spoiling for you the surprises the film has up its sleeves for you. And that’s not to say that they’re all pleasant surprises. There are things that happen here that will be hard for some to stomach; Tragedies that are almost too crushing to think of, especially if you’re someone with an empathetic disposition.
But then that’s how life works, doesn’t it? It has a way of being equal parts triumph and tragedy- if we’re lucky. You can be riding high one moment, then questioning everything you thought you knew the next, only to fall into a deep pit of despair that makes you question why you ever even allowed yourself to be happy in the first place. It’s true that, for some of us, the tragedies far outweigh the triumphs, and that’s especially true of the main characters in Life Itself.
The film aims to show how a handful of isolated moments had the power to shape the lives and fates of so many people, across multiple generations and different continents. It asks you, the viewer, to think of the strange, seemingly mundane decisions made by your elders that put you on a path to being born one day. Have you ever thought of that?
What if grandma had called out sick that day? What if that woman hadn’t dumped grandpa over a totally avoidable misunderstanding, leaving him free to flirt with grandma at work that afternoon? What if mom had been a better student and hadn’t ended up in detention that day she met dad for the first time? How did the psychological baggage of a stranger I’ve never met impact a decision my parents made that changed their lives- and mine- forever? Who’s “The Hero” in that story? And to who, exactly, are they a hero (cause maybe they’re really the villain when you look at it another way)?
These are all hypotheticals, of course. But they’re at the heart of what makes Life Itself tick. These small moments and how they lead to the big stories that are our lives.
Something else the film plays with is the way love can be both a gift and a weapon.
While we’re used to thinking of love strictly as this beautiful emotion- which it is– have you ever taken a moment to think about how you’re using your love? Is it simply an unconditional expression of your support, caring, and understanding for the object of your affection? Or are you, perhaps, using your love to control, manipulate, and coerce someone into doing what you want them to do?
The film is filled with tough questions, and it makes you suffer through some brutal lows on your way to finding answers to them. But thankfully, you have a fantastic cast and some stellar, gripping human drama to make the journey one worth taking.
Life Itself stars Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, and Jean Smart. They’re all wonderful in this, and it’s through their authentic performances that a story about the human experience can really thrive without veering into melodrama.
I found myself riveted by the central mystery of the film, which spans many years and takes place both in New York and Spain, which is: How does this all connect?
And yet, while trying to figure out how all of the puzzle pieces fit together, I was also busy falling in love with these characters and connecting their experiences to my own. This isn’t a film you can enjoy with your arms crossed. If you’re not ready to be open and dig deep into your own painful memories and experiences, then you’re likely to shrug this movie off as some schmaltzy tear-jerker. But if, on the other hand, you’re willing to let old wounds and insights come bubbling up to the surface to meet the universal truths in this tale, it’s a film that will leave you with plenty of soul-searching to do as you figure out which ending your story is heading towards.
There’s also a magical quality to it, with the way it plays with the narrative flow, and the way the stories interlock, that demonstrates a heightened reality. For me, that made some of the big coincidences work. Writer-Director Dan Fogelman wasn’t going for realism here, per se. He has something to say, and he’s crafted a story that reveals that message in surprising ways.
Life Itself was the most powerful cinematic experience I’ve had at the movies all year. It’s marvelously-acted, wickedly inventive, and filled with emotional surprises that pack a big punch if you’re willing to let your guard down.