Published Oct 16, 2014Grief can be one of the trickier emotions to convey on film, as the pain that accompanies an irrevocable loss is something that's always worn but scarcely shown. For a little while, it looks as if William H. Macy's feature directorial debut, Rudderless, seems destined to become an inert and depressing slog — then, it springs to life in the best way possible, slowly and organically morphing into a warm, inspiring and yes, a little sappy, charmer about the transformative power of music.
Sam (Billy Crudup) is a successful advertising executive whose life is put on hold when his musical son Josh (Miles Heizer) is killed in a mass shooting where he attended college. A couple of years later, Sam's taken to living in a boat, painting houses when he bothers to show up and drinking at every opportunity. His life begins to change when his ex-wife (Macy's real-life wife, Felicity Huffman) arrives one day with Josh's guitar and a box full of demos their son had made.
Sam learns one of the songs and shows up at a local open mic night to perform it in front of a small audience. He makes a big impression on Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a fellow musician who then refuses to stop pestering Sam about playing together. Soon, Sam finds himself digging through more of Josh's demos and reluctantly forming a band with Quentin and a couple of other musicians in town.
Actors are often smart enough when stepping behind the camera to secure a formidable cast in front of it, and Macy is no exception here. Crudup makes Sam's struggle to commune with his deceased son through the songs he wrote an emotional but also surprisingly exciting one. He's matched by Yelchin as a ball of nervous energy and ambition who's determined to draw Sam out of his depressive stupor. Even Laurence Fishburne and Selena Gomez are given a few choice scenes as the owner of a music store and Josh's ex-girlfriend, respectively.
Movies like this often hinge on the songs, and the ones written for the film by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman (who happen to be composers on Macy's TV show Shameless) crackle with an authentic youthful exuberance. They go a long way towards making it believable that Josh's music could strike a chord with people and spark the central bond between Sam and Quentin.
There's a sly and subtle twist towards the end that casts things in a slightly different light and, though the plotting threatens to veer into saccharine Hallmark movie-of-the-week territory at times, the film manages to stay true enough to its characters to be genuinely heartwarming.