Shot entirely with a handheld camera, Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” could easily be hailed as the most stunning home movie of all time. The gritty-yet-eloquent film follows a recovering drug addict who returns from rehab to her suburban Connecticut home for her older sister’s wedding. Over one extremely long and strained weekend, years of familial dysfunction and emotional turmoil escalate toward a desperately needed head. Beautifully true to the style of the film, it concludes with barely any more conclusions than we started with, nothing other than the assumption that this family, like all families, can only heal with time.
Anne Hathaway gives a striking performance as Kym Buchman, a disturbed and drug-addicted sister. “Well, she needs a lot of acknowledgement,” her mom states during one scene. While the narcissistic Kym borders on detestable, Hathaway succeeds at transforming her into a vulnerable and sympathetic portrait of addiction and mistakes. During a group meeting session for addicts, Kym tearfully announces, “Sometimes I don’t want to believe in a God that would forgive me.” In moments like these, we forgive Kym for all her biting comments and realize her pain as she struggles for redemption.
Despite Kym’s strong presence, the supporting cast is integral to the affecting nature of the film. Rosemarie DeWitt takes on the role of the titular character. Rachel has spent her childhood as an afterthought, always second in relation to the greater problems her family faced. Deprived of attention for so long, she only wants her wedding to go smoothly. Yet each time Kym’s troubles overshadow her impending marriage, you can see her heart, however minutely, gradually splinter into pieces. DeWitt perfectly encapsulates that feeling of worthlessness with each word on which she chokes, each pained expression and each childish outburst. Bill Irwin is outstanding as Paul Buchman, the father of the two girls. With skill, he crafts his overly caring and slightly pitiful character, so when he reaches an emotional breaking point mid-film, you can’t help but sob along with him. Debra Winger rounds out the cast, delivering a chilling performance as the distant mother.
While it’s the family dynamic that makes “Rachel Getting Married” a first-rate film, it’s the music that makes it stand out. Musicians, acting as wedding guests, fill the background of the film. You hold your breath as you realize the touching refrain reflecting the mood of the scene is actually just a violinist sitting in the corner of the room. Very often you forget they are even there, as the minor melodious characters fade into the larger crowd of the wedding party.
Part of the film’s power lies not in what it addresses, but what it ignores. Rachel and Sidney, played by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, are entering an interracial marriage. Demme disregards what could have been used as another source of family trouble, instead discreetly directing attention to the handsome side of multiculturalism. Within the wedding ceremony, played out like a breathtaking documentary, we experience a fusion of cultures, a delightful blend of black upon white as the camera captures sari-clad bridesmaids, samba dancing and electrical-guitar processionals.
Demme’s film takes the trope of family dysfunction and deliverance and creates a unique masterpiece. Declan Quinn’s simple and stunning camerawork, as if he were a peripheral cousin just filming the wedding, envelops you. The actors manage to elevate their characters beyond just people in a script. When Kym screws up, you shudder. When Paul’s face crumbles, your heart breaks. And when the telltale tune strikes up on the electric guitar and you see her start down the aisle, you can’t help but rejoice. Despite all the trials and tears, there is “Rachel Getting Married.”