An organization called Good Grief, located in Morristown, N.J., is dedicated to helping children grapple with the deaths of their parents or other close family members.
Directed by Katrine Philp, the doc makes the bold decision to focus entirely on a group of kids, ranging in age from 5 to 10. While adults appear on camera, only kids are interviewed.
Right off the bat, viewers will want to reach for their tissues as they meet 8-year-old Nicky, sitting at a table with other kids and working on making a little bracelet.
His eyebrows begin to knot and his mouth begins to turn down as he fights back tears. His small, unguarded face conveys all the love and loss he feels for his late dad.
The counselors jump into action, asserting that it’s OK for Nicky to cry. The other kids get on board. One offers, “crying makes your eyes clean.”
Nicky and his twin sister Kimmy lost their father in the hospital, but neither explains the cause of death. The film’s spell is occasionally broken by questions of this type, which are never answered. But, in the end, these things may or may not be important.
Six year-old Peter has lost both of his parents. His mother died in a car crash, and his father died from what he calls “bad medicine.”
He now lives with his uncle CJ, a burly, tattooed man, who clearly loves his nephew. But there’s a sense of hesitation. One wonders what CJ’s story is. Is this perhaps sometimes a burden that he never bargained for?
Along the way, we meet Nolan, 9, and his sister Nora, 10. Nolan describes his father as having gone to a party, where his father’s friends gave him something that made him lie down on the couch, go to sleep, and never again wake up.
The precocious Mikayla, 5, lives with her mother, and describes heaven as pink. They visit her father’s grave, and she wonders whether the death date on the headstone is his phone number.
The movie takes place largely over the course of a year, including a bittersweet Christmas season, as new guardians attempt to make a nice holiday for the grieving children.
At Good Grief headquarters, the kids get into discussions, for example, about people that are constantly asking “are you OK,” and what, exactly, a soul is.
They also make crafts — bracelets and paper plate portraits — to honor their loved ones. They play in a strange indoor sandbox that, instead of tractors and blocks, contains little coffins and headstones.
Peter plays with some toy figures, smashing them up in a toy car and proclaiming “he’s dead!”
Counselors are always there, suggesting ideas for crafts, reinforcing and encouraging the kids’ play. The movie gives us no indication as to who they are, whether they’re volunteers or staff, or how the facility operates.
But Philp’s choice to zero in on the kids has something in common with Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” “Coco,” “Onward,” and the recent “Soul.”
Like “Beautiful Something Left Behind,” those movies address death more closely than most recent mainstream media. By cutting through philosophy or psychology and simply viewing it with a childlike purity, perhaps we come closer to understanding and accepting death.
Beautiful Something Left Behind
Directed by: Katrine Philp
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Also available Friday, in select theaters and digital on demand, is the modern Western “No Man’s Land,” which likewise deals with death and its consequences.
Starring and co-written by Jake Allyn and directed by his brother Conor Allyn, the movie is an earnest attempt at presenting a sympathetic portrait of immigrants on the Texas border, albeit one told from a white man’s point of view.
Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn) is a promising baseball player who returns home to his family’s ranch, just as a group of immigrants led by Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez) inadvertently trespasses on the Greer family land.
Jackson’s father, Bill (Frank Grillo), and older brother Luke (Alex MacNicoll) confront them. During a scuffle in which a young boy (Alessio Valentini) draws a contraband switchblade, Jackson accidentally shoots and kills the boy.
Bill tries to take the blame for the killing, but a distraught Jackson heads into Mexico accompanied only by his horse Sundance, to find the boy’s family and atone for his sin.
He meets many people that help him out while his one T-shirt gets filthier and filthier, and while a yellow-haired, tattooed punk — a one-dimensional, swaggering, sneering bad guy (Andrés Delgado) — keeps showing up to make trouble.
The twitching, quaking hand-held camerawork continually draws attention to itself, and wonky editing chews up potentially exciting situations, making them confusing.
Andie MacDowell as Jackson’s mother and George Lopez as a border patrol agent bring a few moments of life to “No Man’s Land,” but the movie’s combination of awkwardness and good intentions make it, in the end, more regrettable than admirable.
No Man’s Land
Starring: Jake Allyn, Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell, George Lopez
Written by: Jake Allyn, David Barraza
Directed by: Conor Allyn
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes