Are you the hero of your own story? Or perhaps you are trying to seek whom the hero is of your story? The Dan Fogelman drama Life Itself answers those questions in this beautifully knitted tale of interconnected stories from the lens of flawed people who begins to slowly discover the heroes in their stories.
I will prepare you in advance and tell you that just like watching an episode of This Is Us — the NBC hit drama series by showrunner Dan Fogelman — you will need tissues while watching this poignant film. The narrative of the story opens up like a book and is broken down by a series of chapters. Each respective chapter is the featured protagonist of their own story. In chapter 1 we follow the lives of Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde). Two New Yorkers who fall head over heels with each other while meeting in grad school and their lives are forever changed by one moment. It’s the one moment that shapes not only the course of their stories — but introduces us to the next chapter of our new hero/protagonist.
If you are familiar with the way the series This Is Us seamlessly connects people together with fate and destiny intertwined throughout, the same happens here within the stories of Dylan (Olivia Cooke) and Irwin (Mandy Patinkin). Without going into too much detail here, because you must experience the dramatic plot twist that connects Dylan’s story from Will and Abby’s, the story has an authentic way of showing how life carries on in spite of celebrations and tragedies and the one thing that is always constant is time.
As we meet each character between past and present, we learn more about who they are as lovers, as children, as adults who bear children and their parents. The story also travels between New York and Carmona, Spain.
The opening narrator of the story is none other than the eminent Samuel L. Jackson who helps set the tone of the film which comes off as more comical than dramatic. For a moment I was expecting to see more of a rom-com when he started narrating this quirky story — but in a typical Fogelman plot-twist, we receive a dramatic stun to our senses and immediately realize we’re going to need that box of tissues.
The Amazon Studios film Life Itself brings an all-star cast and every single solitary performance is impressive. From Oscar Isaac as Will giving his all as a man wrought with emotion over a recent tragedy and confides in therapist Dr. Cait Morris (Annette Benning) to Antonio Banderas as Mr. Saccione, a wealthy land-owner who candidly shares a story with Javier (Sergio Peris-Mancheta) about his parents and how he accumulated his fortune. Mr. Saccione, a man who grew up with a father who despised him — ultimately becomes a father to Rodrigo (Alex Monner) and a caretaker for Rodrigo’s mother Isabel (Laia Costa) which leads to another connected story which will ultimately blow your mind. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning, in this myriad of human interest stories the film presents. The tear-jerker moment (and there are more than a few) for me was the impassioned speech from Isabel to her son Roderigo about how in spite of how life tears you down, it’s important to always get back up. I can play that speech over and over like a broken record and I’m sure after you see and hear it, you will too. Her monologue is the motif for the entire film.
The film’s score is gorgeously orchestrated by the award-winning composer Federico Jusid who is known for scoring such films as Misconduct, Kidnap, Black Butterfly and The Hunter’s Prayer among several others. The score becomes more eloquent as the drama intensifies from one scene to the next.
And while many who watch this film will inevitably draw parallels from NBC’s This Is Us, the story is so much more. It crosses over continents and happy accidents to show us how connected as human beings we truly are, and I believe truly that although this specific story is a work of fiction, this could easily be an adaptation of someone’s actual experiences. There are only a few degrees of separation between all of us, and Fogelman exploits that brilliantly in his work.
It’s quite possible this film may get some Oscar-buzz from its noteworthy performances and Amazon Studios has had a track record from films like Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman that have won Oscars. It’s too early to say and it may not generate the kind of buzz those films received, but one thing is for certain, this a movie that confirms Amazon Studios is on the right track with his crop of films. The drama Beautiful Boy, also screening at TIFF this year is yet another dramatic film centered on family and relationships. We shall see what comes out from both of these films’ releases this year.
You may want to keep some tissues on hand while watching Life Itself. The tears will flow and there’s no way to stop them.
Life Itself premieres in theaters nationwide September 21st.
For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following:
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Critics Choice Association.