When it comes to difficult subjects, showing can be so much better than telling. Wrapping a tough topic in film or fiction can soften the blow and ease an audience into confronting something painful or repellent. Some artists go even further, shaping a subject until it’s not just cushioned, but reconfigured. And then the audience gets something even better: transformation.
The Sea Is All I Know, a short film by lesbian filmmaker Jordan Bayne, is transformative as a whole (if not at every turn). I’m reluctant to say that it’s "about" assisted suicide, because it’s really about love, sacrifice, nature, god — a lot of things at once. (It’s much less "about" assisted suicide than, say, the heavy-handed Million Dollar Baby.) And despite encompassing so many vast subjects, the film is stripped-down and quiet, imparting the stillness of death even as it captures the shock of loss.
Melissa Leo and Peter Gerety play the estranged parents of a terminally ill adult daughter. That’s pretty much all you should know about the plot. The facts of the film don’t matter half as much as the feelings: the worlds of pain that Leo holds in her dark eyes as her thoughts turn inward; the helplessness that washes over Gerety as he stares out at the susurrous sea. In the hands of such gifted actors, these muted moments do more to convey the heightened pitch of the situation than any sob or scream ever could.
Writer-producer-director Jordan Bayne intentionally kept the film’s universe small, peeling away layers and background until she was left with the truth of her story. In a Q&A session after the screening I attended, Bayne noted that she never thought she had a feature film on her hands. That might be her real gift: the ability to sound out the borders of her landscape. The film never strays far from the anguished atmosphere that its characters are breathing in and buckling under. But the goal isn’t claustrophobia — just clarity.
Bayne made the film for Leo, and that’s the other key to The Sea Is All I Know. An Oscar winner at the top of her game can be trusted with such potentially heavy material — trusted to take us into the depths of what she’s experiencing, yet protect us from getting too overwhelmed to make sense of it. Even when the dialogue gets a little clunky, Leo doesn’t disappoint. She’s marvelous — a marvel.
But Leo’s virtuosity won’t help you reach any conclusions about the tough subjects in this film, though I did walk away with the reassurance that love can give me the courage to transform one moment of life into the next. And knowing that is probably knowing everything.
Jordan Bayne and Melissa Leo
Photo: Carme Boixadera