Film Review: Weightless

A difficult, original but inconsistent father-son story about two strangers trying to find connection in a grim universe.
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Weightless is a bleak slice-of-life movie that’s tightly focused and stylistically cohesive. The narrative is not without interest and the film’s atmospheric mood is effective. But ultimately its slow pacing (unremittingly so) grows tedious and the ending is a non-ending.

Best known as a director of music promos/commercials, Jaron Albertin sets his tale—his first theatrical feature—in an impoverished backwoods community where Joel (Alessandro Nivola), a depressed, enraged blue-collar worker, makes his living dumping garbage into a landfill. The metaphors are obvious.

Joel picks up empty bottles from the ash heap for his private collection and goes through the motions of hanging out with his co-workers. There’s his tenuous relationship with Janeece (Julianne Nicholson), a local woman with a sensitive soul who occasionally spends the night in his dilapidated trailer devoid of decoration, short of his colored bottle display. Trying to bring some life into his setting, she presents him with a goldfish in a see-through cellophane bag and together they find a small bowl for it; both enjoy looking at the fish. It’s a lovely detail that has resonance as the film evolves.

Sparseness is the operative aesthetic. We know Joel is troubled, though no details are offered. The movie opens with him swimming to shore, pounding the stones on the beach and crying. We don’t know where he came from, what happened, and we never find out. The dialogue is scant and there’s little backstory.

Still, we learn he was married and had a son, Will (Eli Haley), with whom he’s had no contact in ten years. Will’s mom has now jumped ship (again no explanation given) and Joel assumes a custodial role to this stranger, his lonely, obese child. Will spends much of the day alone in the trailer while Joel goes to work. Enter a local physician (K. Todd Freeman) and social worker (Angela Dilworth-Gordon), who warn Joel that his son has diabetes and needs available caregivers. They want Joel to relinquish his son to a foster family.

Joel fails to fill out the paperwork and when the social worker leaves a censorious voice message for Joel, Will erases it. Father and son are in silent cahoots, a wordless bond made all the stronger as Joel attempts to engage Will with activities that he himself enjoys, including drag racing. A child strapped into a car charging down a dirt road at dangerously high speeds is disconcerting. Dad is irresponsible and reckless. Still, it’s hard not to root for the two outliers, especially compared with—in stark contrast to—the unkind, menacing world that surrounds them.

Through trailer windows Will and Joel watch children at play, each understanding that the kids would not welcome Will; and within short order the youngsters, one bully in particular, is taunting Will, calling him a fat freak, daring him to come out. Joel assaults the main offender, chasing him and his pals off the property. In turn the delinquent’s dad launches into a fight with Joel at a local bar. It doesn’t take much to provoke these bored and destitute characters.

Enda Walsh, the Irish-born screenwriter/playwright whose film credits include Hunger, Disco Pigs and Chatroom, often explores claustrophobic realms submerged in existential disquiet—from political and sociological dramas (Hunger and Disco Pigs, respectively) to a film like Weightless that has elements of both, coupled with a deeply personal thread that exudes free-floating fear.

Albertin captures that sense of peril, never quite morphing into full-throated violence but a constant presence nonetheless, mounting incrementally and lurking beneath the surface. We see Will perched on a tree stump outside the trailer when a deer emerges from the forest and reluctantly approaches. They eye each other. The sweetness, innocence, interconnectedness between the two is moving. Yet the oppressive silence followed by a rustling noise evokes foreboding. I felt certain a gunshot would ring out and the deer would be killed or horribly maimed. It didn’t happen, but the image prevailed. Something living and harmless was destined to be destroyed.

And that brings us back to the goldfish. From the outset we intuitively know the new pet is at risk and the dread intensifies in the wake of the deer episode. It’s no fluke that the endangered animals are Will’s truest friends (though there is a young girl who befriends him too). Face pressed up against the bowl, he lovingly dips his finger into the water, stirring it gently.

Newcomer Haley brilliantly brings to life a forlorn child awash in self-loathing whose girth is as repellent to him as it is to others. His layers of fat are also a shield guaranteeing his isolation. His deepest desire, he says, is to be totally invisible and as fast as a bullet. Perhaps that’s what the title refers to.

All the performances are fine: Nivola’s restrained, inscrutable manner belying a cauldron of emotions; Nicholson emitting a ray of warmth; and as the two city employees adhering to the rules, both Dilworth-Gordon and Freeman are also sentient human beings. Tania Bijlani’s production design makes palpable a bereaved and denuded world. A bloody turning point in a putrid pink bathroom is spot on. The same is true for the occasional background music by Andreas Lucas and J. Ralph, suggesting wind chimes in almost airless space.

Still, the glacial pacing and elusive conclusion (it’s not ambiguous, just unclear) are major potholes. Nonetheless, Weightless marks an impressive debut feature defying convention to recount a pessimistic story about two misfits coming together too little, too late. Few would tackle this one.