Full transparency. I have avoided the television phenomenon “This Is Us” like the plague. I don’t do sap and I don’t subject myself to prolonged drama, especially vanilla, “meh, it’s weeknight television” drama. I walked into my screening of “Life Itself” with the full expectation that I was going to see a cinematic version of “This Is Us” sap.
I was not only pleasantly surprised but enjoyed the film so much that is has joined the ranks of “Annihilation” and “Hereditary” as one of my top films of the year, so far.
“Life Itself” is… complicated. It opens on the surprising story of a young couple who are just embarking on all the best parts of life. Falling in love at college. Marriage. The birth of their first child. But, the funny thing about life is that it is so unexpected. Twists along the way create a ripple that echoes across time and space and through the lives of others, often in the most unexpected of ways and places.
The film is written directed by professional emotion wizard, Dan Fogelman, of “This is Us” notoriety. “Life Itself” boasts one of the best casts in recent cinematic memory featuring the talents of Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, and my #1 Dreamy Human, Oscar Isaac.
Not to be forgotten and deserving of special note is Sergio Peris-Mencheta, who had not been on my radar until this moment and has thoroughly arrested my attention for the foreseeable future. Dude has acting chops for days.
“Life Itself” is storytelling in its purest form. I won’t bore you by waxing poetic about the fickle nature of life and its players, the film tells it better than I do. A key element of that what makes “Life Itself” work on the stellar level that it does is that phenomenal cast I mentioned earlier.
This is an actor’s film 100%, and I do love a good actor’s film. Every single role, no matter size or scope, is filled by the perfect individual and is executed with such depth, nuance, and sincerity. It gives every character importance and weight, which is crucial to a film such as this. I was blown away by every performance and could not pick favorites if you asked me to. Well done.
For this critic, the greatest pleasure of “Life Itself” was how unexpected it was. As I said at the outset, I had a bias on what I thought this was going to be. Even as I was gradually being proven wrong, I still tried to pretend that I had “Life Itself” figured out. I imagined a more high-stakes “Love Actually.” Nope. Not to get overly philosophical, but the film’s main theme of “life is a crazy journey” is perfectly woven into every aspect of this film and successfully worked that thread into the audience experience. At least, as far as I’m concerned.
The writing in “Life Itself” is the only filmmaking element that could go toe-to-toe with the performances of the cast in the “Holy Shit, That’s Good” category.
Fogelman has a great gift for the remarkably ordinary. There is something so natural about his words. His characters don’t speak like heroes in a movie, they talk like real people while also delivering absolutely beautiful material. It’s a difficult balance that is rare to find and squeezed my heart more than once, during my viewing.
“Life Itself,” as a film, has such a fantastic intimacy to it. These are intimate portraits of very intimate and vulnerable moments. It is an arresting experience that I have not felt in the cinema for such a long, long time.
No movie is perfect. My number one fear with “Life Itself” was the sap factor and we do wade into that territory every so often. Fortunately, never to the extent that the story is bogged down by it. My few complaints are limited to the utter emotional abuse that filmgoers are subjected to for large portions of the film.
But, isn’t that the point?
In case it wasn’t clear, my verdict on “Life Itself” is get out and see it in the theaters. I’m already planning my next viewing.
“Life Itself” is in theaters September 21.
Featured image credit: Jose Haro
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. She currently serves as the Lead Film Contributor for Shuffle Online; other notable bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.