Bad Hurt Dir. Mark Kemble

[Screen Media Films; 2016]

Styles: drama, family drama
Others: The Savages, The Squid and the Whale

Mark Kemble’s grim first directorial feature, Bad Hurt, tells the story of the Kendalls, a family accustomed to hardship. In the film, Elaine (Karen Allen), Ed (Michael Harney, better known as Sam Healy on the TV show Orange is the New Black), and their son Todd (Theo Rossi) all face troubles that could set them over the edge. Based on the real story of Kemble’s family, the film takes place in a working class Long Island suburb at the very end of the 20th century, awash in the steely gray color palette unique to a New York winter.

There are other players in this family milieu. The Kendall’s intellectually disabled adult daughter DeeDee (Iris Gilad) is kicked out of yet another program, while their older son, Kent (Johnny Whitworth) stricken with Gulf War syndrome and burdened by memories of his service, is slowly drinking himself to death. At the center of it all is Ed, whose unexamined trauma is an open wound that keeps the entire family from healing.

DeeDee’s misunderstood romantic relationship with Willie (Calvin Dutton), another intellectually disabled boy, causes a stir at the box factory where both hold low-paying jobs. Their flirtation leads to DeeDee’s dismissal because she “distracts” Willie from his work — an unsettling commentary on the absurdity of gendered expectations for behavior in public spaces. In fact, Willie and DeeDee are the only truly functioning people in the film, aside from the one-dimensional Elaine, whose sole job in the household seems to be defending her children from the outside world.

Like the family it depicts, Bad Hurt seems dogged by the past — specifically the years right before the terrorist attacks in New York City. An opening shot shows a distant skyline, one which still includes the World Trade Center towers. This image seems to be there less to set the timeframe than to establish a mood of unease. The invasion of Iraq looms on the horizon as the aftermath of other wars haunt the screen.

The sons playfully request a specific war story from their father, who is, we discover, also a combat veteran. We assume this will be a story of heroism, but as it soon turns grisly and disturbing, the boys continue to react as though it were a familiar bedtime story, repeating phrases like refrains from a children’s rhyme: “The bombs were everywhere,” they repeat, “I was the only one left alive.” In his final retelling of the story, Ed reveals a previously undisclosed final act that upends the narrative completely.

You might think the film would drown in its own mirthlessness, and it comes close, at times. Kemble doesn’t take any shortcuts in his frank analysis of trauma — until the very end, at least, when he resorts to some tired techniques to bring an abrupt, but surprisingly light ending. DeeDee and Willie’s frank and undiluted emotion counters the family’s repression, inevitably leading to their necessary release. Ultimately, when it comes to family, the truth will out. But it’s almost always better that way.

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