Childless is one of those films which has a gimmicky premise but still manages to get a viewer emotionally invested in the story. It uses one of the most interesting story devices to come along in ages and employs it to great effect, giving you a personal and affecting experience that would probably not have been possible without the technique.
Childless is about a 16-year-old girl's funeral — the preparations and the actual event. We are introduced to five main characters who let us know exactly what they're experiencing by talking directly to the camera (including the deceased teenage girl).
Not many movies have the guts to break the fourth wall. First of all it goes a major way to breaking the illusion that we're supposed to be watching a story unfold, blatantly acknowledging the fact that it is, after all, just a movie. When it does get used it's usually for some sort of commentary on filmmaking or society (Funny Games, for example) or for comedic/sarcastic effect (Death Proof, for example). To marry this technique with a serious movie is an odd concept indeed but writer/director Charlie Levi (making an impressive feature film début) pulls it off very well. You soon get past the gimmicky nature of it and end up really feeling part of what's going on, feeling as if you're just another person within the story.
The film is all centred around the funeral of a teenage girl and how her death and the ordeal of watching her being buried affects various different people in her life. Her father, her aunt, her step-mother, and her step-uncle are those who we get to spend time with, alongside the deceased girl herself (it's creepy at first to see her lying in a coffin talking to you, but quickly becomes strangely effective). Each of them have their own problems, both related and unrelated to the teenage girl, and we get them explained to us as if we are the lent ear of a psychiatrist or polite neighbour who's come over to pay their condolences. Each of these people feels absolutely real, thanks both to the performances and the believable screenplay, which is essential for this "talking to the camera" technique to work properly.
Childless contains a few of those faces whose names you don't know but whose faces are familiar. Joe Mantegna, the most likable and sympathetic person in the film (who you may recognise from the likes of Baby's Day Out and the TV show Joan of Arcadia), Barbara Hershey (Falling Down, Beaches) and Diane Venora (The 13th Warrior, True Crime) are just some of the character actors who make an appearance.
Despite what might seem like a complicated film (because of the technique that's used), it really is pretty simple. It's kind of a "no fuss, no muss" kind of film visually, and not all that much happens as far as events go; it's more of a dramatic, monologue-driven film where we just get to sit back and be with these characters for 90 minutes, never feeling bored or uninterested at any point.
However because its simplicity it sometimes doesn't explain all that it should; there's certainly no reason for a film to explain every little bit of what happened just so that we can have everything tied up in a little bow by the end (something which a heck of a lot of movies annoyingly do), but in this case a few more answers might have sufficed. And it also never fully gets across the sort of profound message it's pretty clear was aimed for; it leaves the audience on a sort of emotional and poignant note but it doesn't quite hit with the gut punch that it should have.
It's always great to see a first-time filmmaker go ahead and create something as unique as this. It borrows not from other movies but from life itself, reminding us that the people in our own lives not only will not be there forever but may get taken from us a lot quicker than we might think. Childless takes an interesting storytelling technique and manages to dodge the pitfall of simply being gimmicky and makes it an emotionally powerful and very effective little drama.