Five minutes into The Closer We Get, you’ll feel fairly confident that you know where this story is going. It begins with a familiar and sad image of writer/director Karen Guthrie taking care of her mother, who has recently suffered from a stroke. What we quickly learn however is that this is not the film Karen originally wanted to make. She began filming her family a few years prior to her mother Anne’s sudden stroke, aiming to unearth what went on between her parents several years ago. Karen returns to care for her mother, finding that her father Ian is already at her mother’s bedside. The longer we watch, the more we realise that the issues that this family is facing run deep, and are surfacing after many, many years of resentment and heartache.
The Closer We Get details Anne, Karen and her sibling’s discovery of her father’s affair, when Karen was a teenager. During the film, Karen paints a particular portrait of her father Ian and the life which her parents had together. It becomes immediately apparent that both Karen and her siblings have a somewhat fragmented relationship with their father, owing mostly to his sudden migration to Djibouti during their childhoods.Ten years later, he returned with a secret – he had fathered a son. Karen and Anne talk about discovering this in home video footage, shot prior to Anne’s stroke. Not only does this allow us to form ideas about how much hurt Ian has done to the family, with seemingly no understanding of this himself, it also allows us to meet the person Anne was before her stroke. A matriarch at the head of the family, she expresses her hurt and bitterness at Ian for abandoning them all with seemingly no hesitation. Karen wants answers, but the ones she gets are far from what she is looking for. In between conversations with her half brother Campbell and stilted remarks from her father, we later find out that Ian has left the family again and has married Campbell’s mother, within weeks of arriving back in Djibouti. Karen goes to Djibouti after hearing this news and whilst her meeting with Ian’s new wife is a fascinating dynamic to watch – it is the reactions of her siblings to the news that is most revealing. On being told that their father has suddenly got remarried, her two brothers and one sister seem to be completely unfazed. Moreover, it almost feels expected.
Ian is not entirely unsympathetic, despite his failure to either understand or talk about his shortcomings. Karen frequently narrates to us that she feels she has inherited Ian’s ego and his inability to talk openly about his emotions. Of course, it is clear that the action of making this documentary separates Karen from her father, but she skillfully captures both his loving and his selfish sides. Some of the comments Ian makes (“the amount of money I’ve spent on him”) discloses his real feelings about all of his children, but he is also seen making funny quips in an attempt to cheer Anne and the family up. Whilst Anne is the focal point for the family, Ian’s decisions (past and present) are the momentum for the film.
In addition to the gut wrenching conversations Karen has with Anne and Ian about his affair, and subsequent second life, there are also intimate conversations between Karen and Anna that touch on her quality of life post-stroke. It’s almost unbearable to watch, especially if you’ve gone through that process with a loved one yourself, as Karen helps Anne fill in a health questionnaire. She asks Anne how she would describe her walking pace. Anne replies, ‘brisk’ – summing up not only her style of walking, but also her attitude to life. Karen then reminds her that she was a brisk walker before her stroke, and now they have to write down ‘I cannot walk’.It is an emotional scene, one which ends with Karen in tears but the genuinity of the situation is not lost on the audience. Anne becomes very real at this point, and reminds us of the harsh realities of getting older.
Karen’s voice-over is succinct and poetic. Whilst it allows us to understand the relationship between her mother and father as she sees it, Karen is not brutally honest with the audience through that voiceover and instead we rely on her camerawork to convey her true feelings. She does this spectacularly well using either wide static shots (which often place family members at each end of the frame, representing the emotional distance between them) or using close-ups that often feel ripped from a home video. The effect is that we feel as if we are Karen, wholly involved in the film and a part of the narrative. We, like Karen, are watching this play out before us not knowing where it is going.
The Closer We Get is a painfully personal film, and one that is incredibly brave above all else. There’s nothing quite like airing your dirty laundry to the world, but Guthrie does it so poignantly that it’s hard to forget that every family has it’s own skeletons waiting to jump out. We are not invited to stare, to comment or to even pass judgement on her life and her family. It’s not a spectacle. The Closer We Get is so incredibly understated and subtle – and this is why it works so well. There is no drama, despite the quite dramatic reveals throughout, and this means we engage better with Karen, her mother and ultimately her father too – whether we want to or not. Ultimately, it remains a film about happiness, about family, about deceit and about heartbreak. Anne, insightful and dignified throughout, sums it all up quite concisely for us in one of her anecdotes: “You can’t tell people what happiness is or isn’t. You just know whether or not you have it”. This is the heart of The Closer We Get; a courageous and moving film.