Review by Paul Burch
November 11th, 2017
Lawrence Shaw (played here by Ari Schneider) is struggling with his sexuality - yet in a way in which we aren’t expecting. Although Lawrence is actually not in the closet, he’s still struggling to find his identity as a gay man in a slowly progressing world. He works in marketing and finds himself (in one of the film’s most clever pieces of writing) pushing overtly masculine advertisements toward beer companies which illustrates his issues with compartmentalizing his masculinity.
ELIJAH’S ASHES is done in the same darkly humorous and character-driven style as the films of Alexander Payne with the New Age quirkiness of something akin to Zach Braff’s Garden State. While the film is fascinated in its protagonist and his self-reflection on his own identity, the film mostly follows his reunion with a homophobic brother (writer/director Ryan Barton-Grimley) as they make their way to spread their deceased father’s ashes. This does cause the story to take on familiar heartbeats of the “road trip” movie - with comedic set-pieces aplenty - but we’re mostly taken on a tour of Lawrence’s confrontation with his own issues in the face of the torment and passive-aggressive nature of his family.
Does ELIJAH’S ASHES do anything fresh with this tried-and-true classic blueprint? Fortunately, at certain moments, yes it does mostly because of Ari Schneider. His performance is the type of original characterization needed when working in such familiar territory with many moments where he shades his character with a lot more density than the dialogue actually calls for. As the homophobic brother, there’s an empathy in Barton Grimley’s performance which gives off a warm reminder to not completely demonize a person based on their ignorance and lack of understanding. The two work together well with an extremely natural chemistry. There’s no doubt in their performances that they have a history.
So while the story itself is cut from the cloth of films that have been worn before, ELIJAH’S ASHES is an example of a film that works based on some of its key individual factors. The screenplay itself is sometimes ripe with overly expositional dialogue that we've heard before but the direction is wisely focused on the crisis of its leading man and Barton-Grimley knows exactly what this film is supposed to be - an introspective piece with a heavy reliance on the actors. The sound mixing never distracts (which is a huge plus in such a talkative film) and since Schneider is in every frame, the film lives or dies on his performance. Luckily he is so good it manages to keep interest and lets the audience forgive the flaws. ELIJAH'S ASHES is certainly an actor’s showcase and proves that Barton-Grimley definitely has a feel for human behavior in those smaller, quieter moments that stick with us.