D: Jarret Tarnol / 82m
Cast: Sarah Hyland, Michael Weston, Bret Harrison, Steve Howey, Conor O’Farrell, Alex Frost, Emma Bell, Odeya Rush, Beau Mirchoff, Allie Gonino, Jake McDorman
Following the unexpected (and quite bizarre) death of their brother Max (McDorman), remaining siblings Johana (Hyland), Don (Weston), and Barry (Harrison) all return to their estranged father’s home for the funeral. With all his children having left the family home after their mother’s death some years before, Woody (O’Farrell) sees this as an opportunity to reconcile with them, and to reunite as a family.
Johana brings along Peter (Frost), whom she’s just started dating. Don brings his daughter, Ashley, while Barry brings his boyfriend, Makewi (Howey). They find their father has a live-in nurse, Faye (Bell), who is very much into a new age lifestyle, and who seems to have made Woody’s life more bearable (he walks with a cane and is in generally poor health). But tensions run high from the first day they’re all together, and long-held resentments begin to make themselves felt. Johana has unfinished business with an old flame, Johnny (Mirchoff), and is tortured by regrets over the abortion she had when she was much younger. Don blames his father for not being there for all of them when their mother died, and refuses to let go of the anger he feels about it. Barry has lost a lot of weight and works as a therapist; Makewi was a patient of his. Woody does his best but his children fight amongst themselves and show no sign of putting their differences behind them.
Johana’s budding relationship with Peter is put in jeopardy by her conflicted need to see Johnny. When she finally does he seems ready to rekindle their old romance, but an unpleasant discovery forces Johana to reassess her feelings both for Johnny and for Peter. Meanwhile, a play fight between Don and Barry turns nasty and leads to Don making a homophobic remark. Threatened by Makewi if he says the same thing again, and intending to leave there and then, Don is confronted by Woody, who tries to settle things between them once and for all. But all it does is bring on a stroke. In the hospital, all three of Woody’s children begin to realise just how much they’re in danger of losing by remaining at odds with each other. And then, Makewi has an idea for Max’s funeral that finally unites them as a family…
Watching See You in Valhalla, it’s hard to work out if the Tarnol brothers – director Jarret and scripter Brent – have made their characters deliberately unlikeable or not. All three are so weighed down by the various slights and disappointments of their earlier lives, that these slights and disappointments have come to define them as individuals. Johana is haunted by the decision she made at sixteen and seeks some form of closure by seeing Johnny. Don has allowed his anger to turn him into a hurtful malcontent, foisting his own unhappiness on others, and turning his daughter into a carbon copy of himself. Barry’s feelings of inadequacy from the bullying he endured at school due to being overweight have never really left him, and he’s sensitive to criticism of his work and the provenance of his relationship with Makewi. And Max is shown finding a way out from his addictions through love (and a passion for Vikings), but falling back into old habits when his girlfriend suddenly dies.
But while a knee-jerk reaction to all this angst might be to say, “Oh for God’s sake, just get over yourselves!”, it’s thanks to some astute performances that the viewer is dissuaded from doing so (though it has to be said there are some moments where that temptation is really strong). We’ve seen this type of movie too many times before for the whole dysfunctional-family-learning-to-get-along scenario to appear fresh and engaging, and yet even though Brent Tarpol’s script strays too often into areas of predictability and familiarity, there’s just enough going on to keep the viewer interested in seeing where the movie goes next. The obvious antecedent here is The Big Chill (1983), but where that looked at its characters’ lives and relationships in depth, See You in Valhalla makes only a cursory attempt at making Johanna et al interesting or sympathetic, leaving the viewer largely unconcerned as to whether or not they’ll overcome their differences.
And yet, while the script lurches from one underwhelming emotional confrontation to another, the cast continually pick up the slack and keep things moving forward, doing their best to weed out nuances and thoughtful assertions about their characters and their past histories. Hyland is terrific as a young woman beset by inner demons, eschewing an easy vulnerability for a raw sense of personal transgression. The scene where Johana confesses to Peter her reasons for leaving home is skilfully played by Hyland, and her indecisiveness over Johnny will speak to anyone who’s had regrets over a past relationship and what might have happened if things had been different. Weston does equally as well as Don, taking a stereotypically angry character and showing the need for acknowledgment beneath the irate behaviour. Elsewhere, Howey steals the movie with his flamboyant turn as Makewi, adding some much needed humour to the mix and giving the movie a bump just when it needs it.
If Jarret Tarnol had been stricter with the vagaries of his brother’s script then See You in Valhalla might have been a more polished and engrossing movie. As it is, it suffers from moments of contrivance that threaten to overturn the movie completely in its first half, but the script rallies in the second half and there’s a greater sense that these characters can put aside their differences in order to support their father, and each other. With this in place, the movie ends on a satisfying note that looked doubtful at the beginning. Again, it’s thanks to a cast that takes the material and works wonders with it, giving a sometimes fresh but knowing spin on such tried and tested tropes.
Rating: 6/10 – bolstered by an infectious indie score (mostly) by 10K Dragons, See You in Valhalla takes too long to become effective, but when it does it’s truly rewarding viewing; rescued from the doldrums by its cast, the movie works best when allowing its quirkier characters free rein, and by allowing much of the movie to be filmed in an unfussy, observational style.