Working with deliberately limited resources, writer-director Patrick Wang revels in technical gaucherie that would hinder lesser filmmakers. The Grief of Others, Wang's second film, which premiered at SXSW in 2015 and is now receiving a brief theatrical run, brims with blasted-out light, poorly recorded dialogue and clumsy fadeouts. Certain sequences are incoherent unless you've at least skimmed Leah Hager Cohen's novel; in one of many hallucinatory scenes, a female character morphs mid-conversation into a male one, and Wang doesn't bother explaining who he is, during or after.
Yet these peculiarities are jarring rather than embarrassing. Wang has clearly studied Jon Jost, who also crafts bleak, family-in-free-fall tales with nothing but a camera, a small town, bare-bones interiors and a jaded heart to his name. Whether it all sinks or swims depends largely on the acting, and Wang's ensemble here is excellent. Particularly, they include the unnervingly Christina Ricci-esque Oona Laurence, as a truant, precocious pre-teen, and Sonya Harum, as her eccentric, unexpectedly pregnant half-sister. Harum reunites with members of this dead-eyed clan, who are still mourning the death of an infant and that tragedy's ensuing betrayals and estrangement. As the title suggests, she latches on to their peril -- and that of an androgynous townie (the charmingly off-kilter Mike Faist) -- to distract from her own, in vain.
Wang favors static, wide, one-take shots, to underscore the relentlessness of his characters' suffering. But, like Jost, he also has a knack for primitive in-camera effects. The final shot is a triumph of both economy and feeling: a silent park burial superimposed -- burning projector-style -- over an empty kitchen.