Karen Guthrie’s latest documentary takes place during a relatively short period in her family’s life, predominantly the period after her mother’s unexpected stroke, when her much needed around-the-clock home care called out to her children like a siren across choppy waters. The Closer We Get unfolds in a dreamy territory between private detective narrative and emotional elegy to the life her mother lost, not only after her debilitating stroke, but since the thorny breakdown of her family many years before.
The director returns home to find her estranged father already there, caring for his immobile ex-wife without explanation or fanfare, and it’s some time before the audience is presented with the truth behind his errors and foibles, and the underlying tremors felt by the family since the greatest of his misdemeanours was revealed to them. This strange revelation arrives in the form of an illegitimate child, Campbell, borne of a beautiful Ethiopian woman Guthrie’s father encountered on his travels.
A graduate of the RCA and determined artist and filmmaker, Guthrie quietly admits that as a child she had always wished for bohemian parents instead of the nuclear family she found herself in, yet the whole movie simmers with her uncomfortable acknowledgement of her parents’ true independent lives once the sheen wore off – possibly a familiar sensation to many who watch it. It is this universality of her situation that shines through Guthrie’s study of her own admittedly unique family, and there is a sense of camaraderie that breaks through the fourth wall to meet the audience as she addresses problems like never expecting that her “mother would need mothering”, the pressure of unbound parental expectation throughout her life, and the running problem of stilted communication in a national culture renowned for its resistance to any undignified outpourings of emotion.
Guthrie’s sensitive narration is sparse but illuminating, and although she discusses the need for, but lack of, frank conversation in place of small talk and acceptance within the family, she does so in neat and poetic aphorisms, never fully confessing even to the camera the honest extent of her frustration. And while Guthrie’s framing of Campbell, now grown into a striking young man, as the touchstone of the family’s grief and recovery may not be unpredictable, it feels incredibly sincere, and this sincerity is the true success of her fragile and eloquent film.
Karen Guthrie’s exploration of familial anxiety is so unassuming and considered, despite the evident tensions between siblings and parents, that it feels as though the audience is carried along a gentle current with her, concluding with no conclusion at all, but instead with a remarkable and inspiring exchange with her mother who struggles greatly to move and speak through the duration of the film. A short but significant conversation about sadness being sometimes undefinable but better handled in company, and the nebulous, intangible nature of happiness, and the knowing it when you find it.