There is a grandfather clock that sits in a corner of the house I grew up in, and at some point in the years ahead I’m going to have to figure out what to do with it. Does the clock have value and need to be appraised? Or is it junk that can be donated? There are hundreds of trinkets, heirlooms, and valuables that will require the same consideration, and I’m ill-equipped to handle these decisions. That kind of tension is at the center of Nostalgia, a new drama from director Mark Pellington. It follows several families at varying degrees of distress, with middle-aged children deciding what to do with their parents’ stuff. A sense of melancholy pervades the film, yet the writing is so gentle and thoughtful that it is never maudlin.
Pellington conceived of the film with Alex Ross Perry, and they share a screenwriting credit. You may recall Perry, who wrote Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth—bracing films that wallowed in unlikable, misanthropic characters. Nostalgia is nothing like that; in fact, the sheer decency of Daniel (John Ortiz), an insurance agent, is disarming. Daniel investigates several cases: He meets with Ronald (Bruce Dern), inspecting his home for valuables, and then he visits Helen (Ellen Burstyn), whose home burned down.
Everyone speaks quietly, as if embarrassed over the grief of losing objects, and when one thread ends in the script, another begins. Daniel leaves the film, having fulfilled his purpose, so we follow Helen and her family. The only item she saved from her burned home was a signed baseball, one that belonged to her dead husband. Out of curiosity and economic necessity, she meets a sports memorabilia appraiser named Will (Jon Hamm), and soon we follow him for the film’s final section.
Nostalgia carefully avoids histrionics. Even when the characters are angry, they rarely raise their voices. The cumulative feeling is that everyone is trying to get by, and realizes they are in a difficult situation. The delicate script is filled with smart observations, as characters solve problems through surprising, unexpected kindness. Nick Offerman plays Helen’s son Henry, and he observes that assisted living may be the best thing for her. She is not ready for that, but the idea gets her thinking. Their impasse tees up the film’s best scene: we get the impression Will the appraiser has seen many grieving widows, and he almost serves as Helen’s therapist, even though he clearly wants the ball.
Pellington’s direction is assured and steady, shooting at angles to suggest we are sitting at eye level with everyone in the film. While the drama could have easily been too stuffy and theatrical, each setting has a unique feel to it. Helen’s house is destroyed, while the house belonging to Will’s mother is abandoned. Sometimes the actors just look around, taking in places from their past, with the production design and light serving as a filter for how the characters must feel.
The film is full of strong actors, all of whom are known for the intelligence they bring to their roles. Ortiz is the biggest surprise, simply because an insurance agent speaks with the curiosity and care we might expect from a grief counselor, or funeral director. Catherine Keener plays Will’s sister Donna, and her scenes with Jon Hamm seamlessly veer from pleasantries to unearthing old wounds. This is the sort of film that asks its audience to lean forward, simply because each experience and trial has a universal quality to it. But the actors nonetheless find the right note of specificity, no doubt drawing from their personal experiences more than they might for other roles.
It would be easy to dismiss Nostalgia as a “weepy,” the sort of melodrama that prefers cheap manipulation over actual insight. Indeed, there are some heavy-handed moments: The musical score has the subtlety of those ugly-cry Superbowl commercials, and some of the voice-over is overwrought. Those issues notwithstanding, this is a film of rare wisdom. It is not traditionally entertaining, and yet the broad canvas of characters ensure that everyone in the audience will empathize with at least one of them.
Many films inspire people to call their parents, grandparents, or old friends. Nostalgia does that, and it also gives them something important to discuss. Who knows? Maybe this film will make a few end-of-life decisions just a little bit easier.
Nostalgia opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.