The subject of SIDS–Sudden Infant Death Syndrome–might seem more appropriate for a Lifetime TV movie than an edgy independent effort intended for the big screen. But though the topic could all too easily invite treatment that’s trite and obvious, writer-director Marc Forster has avoided the pitfalls and fashioned a piece which, while it shows too great a reliance on film school technique, is subtle, acute and refined.
“Everything Put Together” is actually a couple of years old (it was screened at the Sundance Festival in 2000) and was made before Forster’s current film, “Monster’s Ball.” (Indeed, it was doubtlessly the success of “Ball” that induced Furst Films to release it at all.) It was clearly made on a modest budget–it was nominated for an Independent Spirit award in the category of films realized for less than half a million dollars–and at times it’s rather rough around the edges. But those financial constraints turn out to have been a blessing, because the result isn’t slick or sentimentalized in the conventional fashion of well-funded weepies; it has a raw directness that avoids the saccharine and cuts to the bone in depicting the pain the young mother suffers and the inability of those around her to understand or share in her grief.
Much of the picture’s success is Forster’s doing–some over-ripe visual flourishes apart, he uses a clean, spare style that suits the material well–but equally important is Radha Mitchell’s central performance as Angie. Without overdoing things Mitchell beautifully captures the character’s sadness, pain and resilience. It’s an extraordinary turn in a difficult role. The part of Angie’s husband Russ doesn’t demand a similar range, but in his quiet way Justin Louis matches her well. Unusually in so modest a picture, the supporting cast is also expert. Co-writer Catherine Lloyd Burns and Megan Mullally are especially good as Judith and Barbie, friends of Angie who are unable to cope with her new situation, but the smaller roles are well taken too: Alan Ruck, for instance, has a minor but telling turn as the husband of one of Angie’s former pals.
SIDS, of course, remains a medical mystery; questions and debates persist about its possible causes. Forster’s film makes no attempt to address this issue; the infant’s loss is presented as a horrible, unexplainable tragedy and nothing more. It’s that sense of terrible fatalism that gives the narrative its stark power. And with Mitchell’s stunning performance at the center, “Everything Put Together” becomes a small picture that packs a major wallop.