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Blackbirds on totems represent knowledge. Something that a decision as difficult as euthanasia needs are all the knowledge to make it through. Based on the Danish film Silent Heart, the film Blackbird follows a woman with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) deciding to euthanize before symptoms worsen, a decision her family struggles with the closer it gets. Getting through the film without tears may only be possible if you haven’t a heart.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we are introduced to a family set in an awkward family reunion at matriarch Lily (Susan Sarandon) and husband Paul (Sam Neill). Sisters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska) bring their loved ones, and a lifelong friend of Lily’s (Lindsay Duncan) also joins the mix. What is said and what is done in the first half of the film are of little import as much as the silences in between as the family adjusts into Lily’s plan. 

The grandson (Anson Boon) has a moment with Lily, where he assumes that she will give him life advice as they near the end of hers. But the film doesn’t fall into tropes here and instead lingers on Lily’s independent spirit and desire only for her grandson to live his own life. 

Non-binary partner to Anna, Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) helps shed light on some needed truths. In one of the happier moments, Chris states, “Days go by too slowly and the years go by too fast,” showing her understanding of Lily’s decision. Her daughters have the most challenging time with the decision and must find their way to resolution.

The movie works best in its quiet moments after the joyous ones. The challenging moments, the ones with tears, and the anger are expected in this graveness’s family drama. But the quiet moments that reveal the more complicated parts of living—and taking in what life has to offer make the film beautiful. But the performances, editing, and direction do not stand alone in the beauty. Mike Eley, the cinematographer, shot the film in natural light, using candles for the one evening scene. The home, filmed in England near star Kate Winslet’s own home, doubles for Connecticut and plays as much of a character as the family. The lighting, camera, and setting allow the viewer to settle in as one of the family members going through this long Thanksgiving weekend.

Most people with ALS live five years or less after their diagnosis, but some live much longer. When living with an illness like this, the discussions you have about the end of life are natural and challenging. The film does an excellent job of finding a balance to living with a chronic illness and her choice of many months to end when things move into the more difficult phase where she stops breathing or feeding herself. The film never glorifies the decision or shames the condition. It only follows the natural thread, an architect, with vital independent decisions choosing herself before her body no longer allows her to do so. 

But as much as the movie surrounds one woman’s decision, her family’s impact is the heart. Those who live on after losing someone face the most significant effect of the decision. Whether you agree as to the viewer that euthanasia is the right choice is not what is at stake here.  Finding the hope in the quiet moments and the lasting memories made while those we love are still here is the critical takeaway. 

– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)

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Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of Tallgrass Film Association as of 2021. She has worked in the film festival world since 2006, first as a volunteer, and then eventually becoming the Oxford Film Festival Executive Director in August 2015. She used to be a reporter for the Oxford Eagle (a community newspaper) and then Pizza Magazine Quarterly (a global trade magazine). She still loves pizza. And she still writes for Hammer to Nail and Film Festival Today about her other great love: movies. She is from Southern California originally but lived in the South for 20 years. She now resides in Wichita, KS, and has one son.

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