Published Jun 12, 2015From its outset, Thomas Burstyn's latest full-length documentary feature, Some Kind of Love, feels so personal that it's hard to see its subject matter being meaningful to anyone other than himself. There's some very serious and heavy-handed talk of his parents leaving Europe, their relocation to Canada, the family they started, and Burstyn's subsequent lack of connection to his older brother following their parents' deaths. Burstyn and his brother have not spoken for far too many years, without really knowing the reason why, and from a viewer's perspective, it's uncomfortable.
And then we meet his 77-year-old step-aunt, Yolanda Sonnabend, a critically acclaimed sculptor and designer whose work has appeared in the National Portrait Gallery and onstage in productions by the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Her life sounds lavish and sophisticated — that is, until you get a glimpse inside her home.
The last house to be renovated on a block in Britain that had a nearby property sell for over seven million pounds during filming, Yolanda's living spaces are beyond disarray. Curiosities are found around every corner, hundreds of portraits are piled high in seemingly every room and there's no shortage of knick-knacks to look at. For Burstyn, Yolanda's home always felt like "a magical house of chaos." For her older brother, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend — an esteemed AIDS researcher and world-renowned scientist — it's really just a sign of her increasing dementia and inherent selfishness. Yolanda and Joseph seemingly hate each other — at one point Joseph tells the camera he can't remember a single conversation they've ever had — so it's jarring to then discover that both siblings still live under the same roof.
At the start of the film, Burstyn asks "What is family?" and Some Kind of Love attempts to answer that by profiling two family members who seem as close as can be (at least in physical proximity) who clearly wish they weren't on the same family tree. Yolanda is a free spirit, untethered from the world and most of the people she's ever had in her life; Joseph is a cold rational, and though his life work involved saving millions of people, at times he can't seem to find the strength to support his own sister.
It's an interesting and clearly outlined dichotomy, and they're the perfect pair of subjects through which Burstyn can analyze his own relationship with his brother. The problem is Yolanda and Joseph are almost too interesting, and by the time Burstyn reconnects with his brother by film's end, it feels like a footnote rather than a grand finale.
Still, the strength of Some Kind of Love lies in its two subjects, and Burstyn's astute observations about their life, whether spoken out loud or shown through his camera lens, say more than enough about the nature of familial love, the underlying duty bound to it and how time heals all wounds.