Reeling Isaac

By Justin Etheredge | Drama
A young man questions a reclusive mountain dweller who abandoned him at birth.

John is driving by himself up into the mountains. He’s seeking answers to some of the questions that have haunted him — the questions he intends to ask the man who abandoned him at birth, a reclusive mountain dweller named Isaac.

Isaac isn’t happy to see John, but he accepts his presence anyway. The two men share a meal, both making stilted conversation with one another. But finally, Isaac tells his side of the story, which allows John to express some of his deepest held feelings — and perhaps allow a tenuous connection between the two estranged men.

Written and directed by Justin Etheredge, who also takes on the role of son John in the film, this short family drama possesses a striking simplicity in form and execution. Its remarkable willingness to be quiet and simply exist captures the fragile yet compelling dynamic between a father and son who don’t know one another at all and yet are connected by emotions of hurt, regret and pain.

With its warmly pristine cinematography capturing the serene and beautiful mountain setting and the self-sufficiency of Isaac’s cabin, viewers experience the profound beauty of Isaac’s life. But as the film unravels, we and John also see its emptiness and isolation.

Though the writing is sparse on dialogue and the pacing is slower and more deliberate, the emotional arc begins to shift as John starts to understand who his father is. It both captures John’s patience and empathy, but underneath it is a growing undercurrent of pain and confusion. It’s as if John, and the audience, wonder why his father chose this remoteness and isolation over a life with his child.

That question grows more pointed as time passes, and Etheredge’s performance does excellent work in portraying John’s balancing act. He’s patient and accepting of his dad’s reticent nature and seems happy simply to spend time with him. Actor Dan Lauria as Isaac plays the role of an emotionally constipated man confronting a lifetime of regrets and sadnesses, and his taciturn nature reveals its shadows and weight slowly but masterfully. When John lets loose his true feelings of hurt and pain and Isaac finally reveals his full story, the storytelling fills in the silences — of both the film and these characters’ lives — that have haunted them for years.

“Reeling Isaac” is a father-son story, but it’s also about estrangement and facing up to the fallout of major life decisions. Though the film, like its titular character, has few words, it is eloquent as a study in frozen grief and the consequences of avoiding it. As this parent and child discover, this immobilized grief never fades away, but perhaps gains even more fear and trepidation over time. But when space is cleared with honesty and a willingness to listen, it allows room for more acceptance, and even love, to finally grow.

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