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SXSW 2020: “An Elephant in the Room” Film Review: Katrine Philp’s Fly-On-The-Wall Doc Observes Genuine Messiness of Childhood Grief

With the unfortunate cancellation of this year’s 2020 SXSW Film Festival, a significant number of new films were unable to reach an audience, “An Elephant in the Room” being one of those casualties. It may not have premiered among its peers, but it didn’t go away empty-handed. Director Katrine Philp, among the other in-competition submissions, claimed the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature Competition for her empathetic portrayal of six children learning to cope with grief.

An Elephant in the Room

Structured around developing an open, inviting environment for emotional communication, Good Grief serves a very unique purpose for the people of Morristown, New Jersey. Across the span of a year long interactive course, the youth organization assists children grappling with the recent death of a loved one. Katrine Philp documents their curriculum through the vulnerable young eyes of Kimmy, Mikayla, Nicky, Nolan, Nora and Peter, each forming their own methods of wrestling with this newfound mourning.

Tender and touching, “An Elephant in the Room” succeeds in its universality. These kids could be any child going through this process at this very moment. As her case studies, Philp doesn’t guide them toward breakthroughs that would provide a satisfying narrative development. The wounds are still relatively fresh, and will most likely continue to fester once the cameras stop rolling. Embracing the finality of death will ultimately become something they’ll grow to become accustomed to. What matters in this moment are the people who guide them along during this confusing stage, and Philp wonderfully manages to capture their generosity.

A graduate of The National School of Denmark, Katrine Philp has since composed an array of documentary shorts/features, comprising such topics as the struggles of youth blogging (“Book of Miri”), competitive ballroom dancing (“Dance for Me”), continental familial readjustment (Home Sweet Home”), and the injustices of a time-honored interrogation tactic (“False Confessions”). Her films all share a common thread of youth going through transitional periods by way of allowing their perspective to be seen and understood. Her camera captures, yet it does not judge or interfere. What Philp’s eye sees is what we get; flashy edits are not featured in her aesthetic language. 

An Elephant in the Room

One of the greatest things about documenting a subject’s day-to-day activities is watching a natural moment unfold organically and molding it as a significant chapter of their story. For instance, 6-year-old Peter holds two balloons in his hand, each signifying his deceased parents. Upon releasing them outside into the air outside, something unexpected happens. It’s an aggressively windy day, and yet his mother’s balloon finds itself caught in a nearby tree. He reclaims it, only to have it snatched up again by a taller tree. There’s something so inherently sad about holding on this balloon, a symbol of moving forward, tempting all odds to stay behind. It can’t entirely move on just yet, much like Peter.

None of us are fully equipped to handle the violent, unanticipated punch of a recently deceased loved one, let alone children. Life has just begun to shape them, just as an instrumental piece of that transformation (parent, relative, friend) is suddenly snatched from them without warning. Watching children cry is already gutting, but to watch them attempt jumping through their own individual hoops of the grieving process is even harder. Nicky’s first group session shows a young boy who isn’t quite ready to share details of his anguish, resulting in tears before a simple introduction can manifest itself. He has an idea of what he’s about to take part in, and isn’t quite ready to express his feelings. And yet “An Elephant in the Room” manages to make room for some moments of levity, notably when the kids are living life outside of the program.

It’s beautiful how Philp demonstrates just how helpful a program like Good Grief really is. Amid the arts and crafts projects are the counselors who focus their efforts on allowing the children, even if they can’t properly articulate their grief, to feel comfortable opening up. I couldn’t help but notice a frequent pattern of them repeating what a child says back to them. It grants these children an opportunity to be heard and understood by such caring figures without being talked down to. 

An Elephant in the Room

For all of its highlights, “An Elephant in the Room” doesn’t exactly break the mold. It isn’t so much a revelatory breakthrough, but an honest look into the emotions that emanate from discussing grief. The film takes place from the perspective of the children, the camera often eye-level with them. In that case, there’s only so much can be mined from the program’s playbook. The counselor’s actions are depicted as how the children would interpret them. And in doing so, they rarely take a moment to elaborate the thinking behind their methods. 

Forthright in its simplistic presentation of conflicting emotions, “An Elephant in the Room” gets right to the beating heart of its melancholic subject matter, rarely leaning in for unearned sentimentality. 

Stay tuned for more SXSW 2020 remote coverage. If you’re filmmaker who was attending SXSW 2020 Film Festival and would like their film reviewed, please get in touch! Send an email to catherine@shuffleonline.net

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