Debra Winger first appears in Rachel Getting Married about halfway through. As Abby, mother of the titular bride, Winger brings complication, tension, and a sense of dislocation. Even better, she brings distance. While the film persists with the intensive psychological digging that has preoccupied it before Abby’s entrance, she provides a strange and estranged new perspective. Frankly, it’s not a moment too soon.
This strangeness has to do with Abby’s deliberate remove from her two daughters, Kym (Anne Hathaway) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). The girls approach her differently, underscoring the previously established tensions between them. Where Rachel embraces Abby and her second husband (who speaks maybe two sentences in the film), Kym holds back, her smile taut, as Abby nods and refocuses. You know already that Kym is feeling like an outsider herself: the film begins as she leaves a rehab center to spend the weekend at her sister’s wedding. You also know already that Kym resents Rachel’s apparent happiness, marrying the exceedingly pleasant Sidney (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) and into his very warm, apparently very sane family.
Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe
US theatrical: 3 Oct 2008 (Limited release)
The contrast between the two families sets up a theme for the film, that Rachel is at long last finding her way out of her entangled domestic history, while Kym remains mired, so used to interacting in and as crisis that she can’t see another way. The film will go on to expose the deep dark secret that has split the sisters, their parents, and their collective timeline (into, essentially, Before Defining Trauma and After Defining Trauma). The high-definition video camera jigs and jags, sometimes uncomfortably close, more often following along as if a forgotten wedding guest, as relatives do their best to keep apart. The girls’ dad Paul (Bill Irwin) and his wife Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) work tirelessly to preserve a faux order, or at least a belief that the wedding will go off as planned and with sunshine too (this last concern underlined as rain douses their suburban Connecticut lawn).
Whatever the weather, the primary threat to the proceedings is plainly Kym, determinedly unreliable, needy, and furious. While it hardly seems rational for her to enter into the very situation—the family—that has produced years of anxiety and addiction, her story, scripted by Jenny Lumet, is premised on the stagey tension of this very decision. As soon as she arrives “home,” Kym is looking for ways to muck it up, despising Rachel’s superstraight helpers, who lurk in corners and hallways, checking lists of flowers delivered, food ordered, and guests invited. Wearing black tights and an asymmetrical bob that signals—again—her sense of alienation, Kym heads upstairs to see Rachel, looking dramatically haunted.
Rachel’s job through the movie is to seek order, indicated in her introduction, with a best friend attending to last-minute dress adjustments. Kym crashes this scene armed with memories, evoking their teen-anorexic competitions, before she announces (again, dramatically) she must “go to a meeting.” It’s meaningful that her father won’t let her take his car, forcing her to ride her bicycle, so she arrives (again, again, dramatically) late. Here, she admits, “I can feel myself missing the drama sometimes, it feels so boring being straight”—which explains the drama-making, in case you missed that point. Cut to the serenity prayer, the group reciting as Kym’s eyes—Hathaway’s very large eyes—reveal her restlessness.
The roots of her distress, in the Defining Trauma, provide a framework on which she hangs her bad behavior, her craving, her manic lack of empathy. She finds temporary reprieve (and yet another way to act out) in Kieran (Mather Zickel), a fellow group member who just happens to be the best man at Rachel’s wedding. After they have quick, stand-up sex in the basement, they start talking—mostly, they talk about Kym, in particular her outrage when Kieran, who’s best man, lets slip that she’s not maid of honor, that Rachel has bequeathed this honor on a best friend (Emma, played to competitive-queen perfection by Anisa George). Her teen-angelly rebellion interrupted, Kym rushes upstairs to confront her sister—and the family fabric is rent yet again.
All this is to say that Kym and Rachel’s relationship is routinely rocky, abetted by what’s unspoken by everyone else. Much as Carol or Bill urges civility, the past percolates to the surface, embodied by Kym—and even more insidiously by Abby. Their volatile combination, ever teetering, as they blame each other but also themselves, helps to distract from the movie’s clunkier moments; one of these involves a child’s plate, poorly hidden away in a cupboard and accidentally discovered, just in time to bring the ostensible domestic healing to a screeching halt. The truth is, the healing is never imminent, but only suggested as a dramatic mechanism. And in using it, the plot turns explicitly manipulative, despite the organic camerawork and improvvish performances.
The more interesting manipulations have to do with perspective. If Kym’s is the first and most frequent view on display, Abby’s is the first that seems removed. This is a deception, of course, for she is immersed even if living elsewhere, but she repeatedly leaves the scene, back to her second home (apparently still down the road). Each daughter makes a pilgrimage to see her here, and in each instance, some special secret is shared, and a bond is exposed, anguished and perversely cherished. The eventual eruption of rage and retribution between Abby and Kym is the film’s loudest punctuation, but it’s hardly news by the time it occurs. It only makes visible—in Kym’s resulting black eye—what’s roiling. The film keeps pushing forward to hopeful reconciliation, but it’s this raw declaration of rift between mother and daughter, that lingers, another haunting memory.