Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Katarine Philp, An Elephant in the Room is almost certainly one of the hardest-to-watch documentaries to ever be made, but that is hardly surprising given the subject matter it addresses. Regardless, despite the fact that the film is emotionally exhausting, it is ultimately a rewarding and important watch.
The movie takes a look at a support group designed specifically to help children deal with the grief of a parent or sibling. Almost everyone has experienced grief at some point in their lives, but few are unfortunate enough to have to deal with it at such a young age as those children featured in this film. As a result, their emotional suffering is truly unimaginable.
That said, Philp makes sure to also emphasize the hopeful part of this movie. Even though these children have experienced a tragedy at a time in which they aren’t totally prepared to process it, there are organizations like Good Grief to help them embrace their feelings in a way that is normal and healthy.
Philp’s main hope with this film seems to be to normalize the grieving process by presenting it in its most unadulterated form. Many of the children presented in the movie don’t understand what is happening to their loved ones, and as a result, don’t know how to react. Some suppress their feelings, while others act out in rage. By showing this range of ways in which children grieve, Philp successfully explores the universality of the process.
There are five main subjects in the film, and Philp’s split approach to the narrative works quite well. Despite the fact that the viewer won’t be able to form an intense personal connection with any of the subjects, that would’ve been emotional overkill, and quite possibly even unethical given the ages of the subjects.
Admittedly, the movie does start to feel a bit repetitive after a while. While the film does consistently resonate, it will wear the viewer down very quickly. Arguably, the movie could have been just as if not more impactful as a short than a feature. Although the runtime is under an hour and a half long, it accomplishes its goal early and feels like it overstays its welcome.
On a technical level, Philp’s film is very straightforward but effective. The visual style of the movie is very subdued and somber. In a film as serious as this, there is no need for flashy visuals or ambitious gimmicks. Rather, Philp recognizes that the strength of her movie lies in its narrative, and shoots it in as simple but professional a way as possible.
An Elephant in the Room will not leave viewers feeling warm and fuzzy inside, unlike some of the other documentaries that were set to debut at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Still, its place in the lineup is earned, as its earnest exploration of something that unites us all is painfully necessary.
An Elephant in the Room was set to debut at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.