Weightless is the feature directorial debut of actor/director Jaron Albertin. Teaming up with writer Enda Walsh, who wrote the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger, the result is a beautiful, if not somewhat disjointed story of a dysfunctional family. Alessandro Nivola, in his most vulnerable performance to date, stars as Joel, a simple, quiet small town guy who works at a landfill in upstate New York. He lives in a ramshackle, sparsely furnished house and spends his spare time drinking and pursuing women. That is, until, one day, a big surprise is dumped in his lap.
Apparently, before his current iteration as a landfill worker, Joel had a child with Sarah (Meryl Jones Williams). The nature of their past relationship is unclear, but one thing is for sure, Sarah abandoned their 10-year-old son, Will (Eli Haley in a heartbreaking debut performance) at a restaurant. The police then transported Will to Sarah’s sister Carol’s (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) house, as she insists that Joel come pick up his son since Will is his legal responsibility. So he does.
At the beginning, Will hardly speaks. He is a sad, overweight kid with diabetes and other health issues. Joel doesn’t speak much either, thankfully Joel’s girlfriend, Janeece (Julianne Nicholson) is there to help him figure out how he’s supposed to handle raising a child when he barely seems to have a handle on taking care of himself. His boss, Ed (Johnny Knoxville in a rare dramatic role) is also very supportive. Despite all the support around him, Joel still abandons Will every day to go to work when he doesn’t have to, and barely talks when they are together.
“…she insists that Joel come pick up his son since Will is his legal responsibility.”
We find out when Joel takes Will to his personal doctor, that there’s something wrong with Joel, but it’s never made clear to us what that is. It’s some kind of mental illness that makes Joel’s doctor believe that he is not fit to raise Will. I debated with another critic at the screening. They thought that Joel had autism, or was at least “on the spectrum.” I felt that he could be suffering from PTSD or just severe anxiety, due to some negative interactions Joel has with some of their neighbors and other people, but it’s never made clear in the film.
Joel resists the doctor’s attempts to collect Will once they start bonding, which occurs after Janeece gets tired of Joel and leaves the situation altogether. Joel leaves Will alone a lot during the day, leaving him to not much to do except repeatedly watching the security camera footage of his mother leaving him at the restaurant or staring out at the window at the other kids, until he befriends another weird neighborhood kid, Carla (Phoebe Young).
Weightless isn’t so much dependent on the plot as it is the atmosphere. The score by J. Ralph is haunting and fits the desolate yet hopeful mood of the film, and the cinematography by Darren Lew is beautiful and daring, including multiple shots taken from a (literal) bird’s eye view. Of course, Enda Walsh’s script is incredible, as seeing her name on any project usually means it will be original, if not devastating.
This film is no exception in that regard. The relationship between Joel and Will builds into something great, where they try to beat their shared depression together, while fighting neighbors and doctors representing societal norms. The message at the heart of Weightless is that even if a family dynamic may not make sense to the outside world, it doesn’t mean there isn’t love there. It also doesn’t say that it’s the healthiest thing for the parent or the child. I related to the film’s story personally, being a child of adoption and growing up with divorced parents, while also feeling outcast from my peer group in my younger years. I was crying throughout the whole film.
This film is not for everyone since there is not a ton of dialogue and the entirety of its effect relies on your connection to the mood of the material. It’s not a feel-good movie, nor does it have a concrete ending so that some people may be disappointed by that. However, I found the entire emotional journey on which Weightless takes viewers to be rewarding as well as heartbreaking.
Weightless (2017) Directed by Jaron Albertin. Written by Enda Walsh. Starring Alessandro Nivola, Julianne Nicholson, Johnny Knoxville, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Eli Haley, Phoebe Young, and Alicia Goranson.
7 out of 10 stars