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Movie review: Great performances lift ‘Lullaby’ above its cliches

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Lullaby

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For his feature film debut, “Lullaby,” which releases to limited theaters and VOD on June 13, writer/director Andrew Levitas takes a personal story and turns it into a charming, sometimes conventional, film about a family going through the struggle of losing a loved one to cancer. And while “Lullaby” doesn’t contain any major surprises in its story, Levitas’ direction helps elevate it above the cliches, and many of the cast members give incredible performances.

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Levitas uses a personal experience of his to create “Lullaby,” which tells the story of Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), who’s become estranged from his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins). When Jonathan was a teenager, Robert was diagnosed with cancer and only given six months to live. Medical treatment has helped him live for many years past that, but the now 26-year-old Jonathan is about to lose his father to the disease.

But Jonathan distanced himself from his father after several arguments about life decisions, which are shown in flashbacks. A cigarette addict, Jonathan is told that he shouldn’t smoke because of his current location (airplane, hospital, etc.), and because it could kill him. He knows that, but he doesn’t care.

When he reunites with his father, his mother (Anne Archer), and his younger sister (Jessica Brown Findlay), what is meant to be a final farewell to the patriarch turns into constant arguing. Jonathan soon befriends a young cancer patient named Meredith (Jessica Barden). The two share cigarettes together, even though he tells her that it’s bad for her. But she’s already suffering from bone marrow cancer, and she doesn’t care.

Underneath the semi-rebellious Meredith is a young woman who has yet to experience the things Jonathan has– including sex, love, and the high school prom. But “Lullaby” doesn’t become a love story, even though it inches very close to turning into one.

“Lullaby” is more about Jonathan and how he evolves from meeting these new people and reuniting with old friends. And when Jonathan comes around and sees what he has in life, Hedlund’s character transforms from someone borderline unlikable to a shattered human being. Hedlund is able to easily transition from being rebellious to being broken, and he turns in an emotionally packed performance.

Levitas casts a lot of Oscar nominees and one winner in “Lullaby,” but there are several actors who are criminally underused. Terence Howard comes and goes as the caring doctor, and he and Jenkins share a scene that might have been more powerful if there was more of a relationship developed between the two. Jennifer Hudson plays the sassy nurse who doesn’t take anything from anyone, and is mostly in it for some comic relief. Amy Adams plays Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he reunites, but her role is more of a plot diversion than anything else.

And even though those A-listers are underused, they do well with what they have. But it’s Jenkins who steals the show as a character who is mostly seen on his deathbed. It’s more proof that he can be good in just about any role, even one that is as challenging as this one.

“Lullaby” is not a perfect film, but Levitas is able to take a tough subject and work it enough to where the viewer might get a few lumps in the throat. Some of the flashbacks don’t feel necessary, and there are several scenes that have been used in many other films that deal with losing a loved one or reconnecting with estranged family members. But Levitas is able to get past redundancy and delivers a well told story about cherishing the things we have in life.

Grade: B-

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