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TIFF23: Seagrass Weaves a Scorching Web of Familial Grief

Courtesy of TIFF

Seagrass begins on a ferry that is carrying cars and families across a large body of water. The warm, pastel colors immediately create a sense of nostalgia and the feeling of simplicity that only seems to exist during the sun-kissed days of summer. The main family of Seagrass consists of two kids, Emmy (Remy Marthaller) and Stephanie (Nyha Huanga Breitkreuz), and their parents, Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve (Luke Roberts). Despite Emmy and Stephanie’s jovial behavior on the ferry, the family is not headed for a relaxing vacation. Judith and Steve are struggling in their marriage and have brought the family to a retreat. While the children play in group activities reminiscent of a summer camp, their parents are attending therapy sessions to try to reconnect.

The decision to visit this retreat comes mainly from Judith. Her mother passed away recently (five months ago, as Steve quickly corrects during the therapy introductions) and she’s been having trouble finding herself again. It doesn’t take the audience much time to see that the cracks in Judith and Steve’s relationship were there long before Judith’s loss. These troubles extend beyond Judith and Steve to their daughters, who are beginning to sense that they’re losing the emotional security that holds a family together.

Judith cries
Courtesy of TIFF

Though not explicitly stated, Seagrass takes place in the distant past – sometime in the ’80s or ’90s when technology wasn’t the overbearing force that it is now. It’s a time when kids are forced to play with each other because there are no screens or tablets to entertain them. As someone who grew up in the ’90s, on the precipice of this great technological revolution, I feel a nostalgia for summers that looked like this. Even in the midst of this family trying to make sense of how to move forward in the shadow of their loss, there’s still the magic of being young and running wild through fields, forests, and beaches. As Judith and Steve reckon with the state of their relationship, Emmy and Stephanie are coming of age and reckoning with their own relationships. They have to figure out where they stand among their new friends, their family, and each other.

Seagrass has the gut-punch warmth of Aftersun. It’s touching and affecting, a wallop directly to your heart. While Aftersun sees its young main character (Frankie Corio) mourning the loss of her father (Paul Mescal) in a subdued way through home movies, Judith cannot mourn her mother. She takes a blanket her mother made for her to the retreat and explains to her daughters that their grandmother took all the yarn from old sweaters and knitted them into a blanket. They ask if their grandmother liked to knit and Judith tells them she doesn’t know. In fact, she doesn’t have answers to any of her daughters’ questions about their grandmother.

Stephanie and Emmy run through the woods
Courtesy of TIFF

How do you mourn someone who was so important to you, but who you fundamentally do not know? Judith knows that her parents were interned during World War II, but doesn’t know the name of the camp. She can’t speak Japanese anymore, doesn’t know her mom’s recipes, and feels an immense disconnect between herself and the people she was raised by. Now they’re gone and she’s left to put together the pieces of a puzzle she doesn’t understand.

Like Judith’s mom’s blanket, Seagrass is an impeccably woven tale. It’s an intergenerational reflection on grief and the impact parents have on their children. It’s not straightforward. Even the best intentions can run astray and leave trauma in their wake, yet parents are forced to traverse life’s murky waters and make things better for their children. It’s a simple task on paper, but endlessly complex when put into practice. Seagrass lives in that complexity, nestles itself deep down to present an unflinching, and often unflattering, look into the inner workings of a family. Despite the intricacies, Seagrass never gets lost in the weeds. In total, the family spends a week at the retreat and the film is a snapshot, a flash in the pan, of their lives. The retreat isn’t the perfect fix that Judith and Steve hoped it would be and the film isn’t concerned with tying up loose ends. Nothing in reality is neat, so why should Seagrass be? Instead, the film is simply presenting a week in these people’s lives. No better, no worse, just the laughter, pain, and complications of life on full display.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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