Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Old family photos, accompanied by sad piano music and children’s voices, aren’t quite as reliable as a preface to tales of long-suppressed family dysfunction as home movies (the go-to cliché), but they’ll do in a pinch; one of these days, some filmmaker’s going to throw audiences for a real loop by using faded ephemera in the opening credits of a film about a family that gets along great and supports each other all the time. Adam Christian Clark’s Caroline and Jackie is not that film. What it is, however, is a deeply felt and frequently unnerving portrayal of mental illness and sibling rivalry, one which transcends its occasional markers and dreary subject matter to create something sharp and direct.
Its events transpire over the course of a single, very long evening, which begins with the arrival of Caroline (Marguerite Moreau) from New York. It’s her birthday, and she’s visiting her sister Jackie (Bitsie Tulloch), with whom there’s tension right away: Jackie has made her sister’s favorite, the family pot roast recipe, but Caroline has already made reservations at a nearby restaurant, and insists that they go. When they get there, the cause for Caroline’s inflexibility is clear; she’s arranged a surprise party for Jackie, since she never gets to be there for her birthday. Sweet—less so when the group moves back to Jackie’s and she realizes the party was a prelude to an intervention. So that’s awkward.
This turn of events blindsides the audience as much as it does Jackie. Caroline and her friends are worried about her anorexia, her drinking, and her pills, but she seems fairly together in those opening scenes—a little uptight, maybe. But this is an intriguingly off-balance way to tell a story; Clark’s screenplay tosses us right into the deep end before we have a chance to get our bearings, and since we don’t know these people, we don’t know what’s true, what’s not, who to trust, or what’s what. The gradual unpeeling of that information is the film’s master play—information and insights are revealed piecemeal over the course of the loose and rambling narrative, in moments both big and small.
Some of these scenes are awkward to a point of discomfort. As a writer and director, Clark is especially skilled at capturing that moment when a stray comment or inappropriate gesture turns a room, when it’s not fun and games anymore, when it’s weird for everybody. In the early scenes, Caroline and Jackie talk about how close they are, but even before the night starts to crumble, one can’t help but notice that they still cut, jab, and top each other, competing for attention and angling to belittle one another; some of it is casual, second nature by now, but some of it is purposeful and hurtful. And then the film goes a step further, in showing (in a close-up on Jackie, for example, during a particularly agonizing display by Caroline) that in spite of all of that, they will still protect each other, no matter what.
Caroline and Jackie seems to know these situations from the inside out, which gives it an advantage over your standard family melodrama or pedestrian examination of mental illness. It’s easy for a film to make sweeping generalizations and gin up heavy drama. What’s tougher is what this film does, to examine the minute-to-minute feeling of being around that, in it, and unable to escape it.