Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, in 'Rachel Getting Married'

Dir. Jonathan Demme
(R) ★ ★ ★ ★

Rachel Getting Married is so authentic, from its performances to its place settings, that we don’t question it for a second. Shot with a handheld camera, its shaky photography is at first irritating, but as I settled in I began to feel like I was holding the camera, shooting a documentary. It’s written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) and directed by Jonathan Demme, who are so acutely perceptive of human behavior that it doesn’t play like fiction.

The film is ostensibly about Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway, rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), who in the opening scene is picked up from a nine-month stint in a drug treatment facility and taken directly into the heart of family dysfunction. As per the title, her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married, and the house is crowded with bridesmaids, stepparents, and future in-laws — sensory overload, and methinks not the most hospitable environment for a woman fresh out of rehab.

But the film is really about the entire Buchman clan and the problems that can be traced back to a tragedy that took place roughly ten years earlier, problems of which Kym’s addiction is only one of many. When she was a teenager and already abusing drugs, Kym was left to care for her younger brother, Ethan. There was a car accident; Kym survived, but Ethan did not. The event represents a turning point for the family, or rather a stopping point — their relationships to each other have stalled and splintered since then.

Ethan died a decade ago, but the nerves are still raw. There is a moment of tension where Kym and Rachel’s father, Paul (Bill Irwin), competes with Rachel’s fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), to find out who can better load a dishwasher, but when a paper plate with Ethan’s name is discovered among the dishes the air seems to rush out of the room. And when Kym asks her mother, Abby (Debra Winger), sensitive questions, the confrontation turns violent. The wounds have not healed; they are festering. The Buchmans blame themselves or each other, or both, and for all their fighting they never break through to each other. They are always reacting, never dealing.

The trauma also manifests itself in smaller, subtler ways, and I marvel at how Lumet’s screenplay demonstrates such a clear understanding of so many buried layers of neurosis. Consider a scene between Rachel and Abby: Abby is in charge of flowers for the reception, and Rachel asks if she would like to contribute more to the wedding. I watched this scene thinking it was about one thing and only later realized it was about the opposite. From the dialogue, it seems that Rachel wants her mother not to feel neglected, but eventually we realize that it’s Rachel who feels neglected; since the tragedy, Abby seems to have receded from her daughters’ lives.

I would describe more, but I would bore you with my interpretations; better to be immersed in this remarkable film. It has a quality like The Savages, Junebug, and other great films about the intricacies of family relationships in that it knows its characters down to their cores. We could reconstruct the Buchmans’ entire history from the evidence of this microcosmic wedding, and we feel great sympathy for them.

The acting is uniformly brilliant. Hathaway, Irwin, DeWitt, and Winger each play multiple layers of love, yearning, resentment, and isolation; their characters are full of contradictions, but the performances feel direct — they cut right to the heart. The Buchmans, each lost to their own grief, long for the intimacy of family, but the ties that bind don’t bind quite as tightly as they used to.