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Movie Review: Orphans

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The ways tragedy impacts human relationships have been explored throughout the entire history of film. Artists and filmmakers have looked at grief, death, pain, and suffering as consistent themes of the human condition, all the while telling stories that we find consolation in.

Ry Russo-Young’s solemn and heart-rending Orphans does just that, offering us a story of two separated sisters coming to terms with what’s left of their family.

The winner of the Special Jury Award in narrative feature competition at the SXSW film festival, Orphans is a potent story from young director Russo-Young. She directs her characters with zeal and yet a sense of distance, allowing the performers to provide flexibility and sincerity for their relationship. Russo-Young utilizes the digital format here, filming the barren wintery settings with ingenuity and lining up her shots with care. It is a good-looking picture, working well off of a small budget.

James Katharine Flynn stars as Sonia, one of two sisters left orphaned after the death of their parents. As we are introduced to her, she is shooting baskets in a gym and is missing every shot she takes. She is wished a “Happy Birthday” by a class full of youngsters and heads off to an isolated farmhouse to spend some time with her sister, Rosie (Lily Wheelwright). Rosie is an artist trying to make ends meet and she is under the impression that she is going to visit her sister for a birthday party.

When Rosie reaches her sister, however, she learns that the party is comprised of the two of them and Sonia has lied about the other guests. Instead, the birthday celebration becomes about Sonia’s attempts at resolution, forming a family dynamic, and seeking company. She is lonesome and longs for a relationship with her distant sister, but the problems between the two of them and the heartache contained in their past threatens to take all that remains.

The performances lie at the core of Orphans. Essentially a two-person play, the film plays out with sequences of discussion, dispute, and passionate diatribes between Rosie and Sonia. Both have skeletons in their closets; Sonia drinks too much and Rosie pops pills. Their attempts at coming together are often stalled by unalterable tensions, perhaps born from the death of their parents or perhaps born before then. There are moments of stillness, too, and a beautifully shot sequence of the two characters dancing with one another that quickly becomes a physical altercation.

Wheelwright’s Rosie is enthralling for many reasons. In catastrophic circumstances, the young actress died at age 24 on March 22, 2008. The tragedy adds a certain undeclared poignancy to her performance, as her character struggles through her existence and through her grief in ways that she cannot understand. Along with Sonia, Rosie has fallen and has nobody to pick her up again. Sonia’s attempts at reconciling a family come laced with dishonesty and bad habits, leaving Rosie without a foundation.

And that’s really what Orphans is about. These two young women are living life without a net, without equilibrium. As we grow up, we often wonder what things would be like had we not been put into the families we were put into. Often we might even wish our parents had not existed, thereby leaving us the apparent autonomy to fend for ourselves. As we grow up, these feelings may even become stronger. With Russo-Young’s film, we are shown this dynamic and we are shown the remaining components of broken lives.

As such, Orphans is an immensely powerful film.

It is arresting in its beauty, stirring in its simplicity, and engaging in its capacity to provoke. The performances are graceful and sturdy, with both Wheelwright and Flynn creating splendid characters and providing a deep bond on screen. Russo-Young’s direction is faultless, too, resonating with straightforwardness and sophistication. She has composed a gorgeous, poetic, lingering film that is well worth a look.

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