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Carol (Sarah Gadon) asks, “Do you need a reason to be unhappy,” in Meredith Hama-Brown’s “Seagrass,” a very effective study of characters that shows how often grief can lead to other suppressed emotions and maybe even tragedies. What is interesting about that question is how frequently depression can be like a snake swallowing its tail — the thought that we require a cause for unhappiness and there is something wrong with us when the lives which should fulfill us don’t. Hama-Brown’s screenplay consistently brings these types of emotionally tangled issues to light by creating such authentic-seeming people, that it becomes easy to see yourself mirrored within them. There is an astounding moment where Steve (Luke Roberts), who has been increasingly troubled throughout the film thus far, finds himself unable to articulate his feelings during group therapy and forcefully shouts back at everyone present: “I don’t have any f*cking words, OK?!?!” This illustrates perfectly one of the things I think this movie does best; showing how sometimes emotion just cannot be expressed by language alone.

The couples retreat where Steve has his breakdown was organized by him and his wife Judith (Ally Maki). They are joined by daughters Stephanie (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz) and Emmy (Remy Marthaller). Judith recently lost her mother which sent their marriage into disarray. Both seem actively involved in trying to fix things but signs were there from early on that this was more Judith’s idea than anything else – Steve attended reluctantly. Meanwhile, teenage Stephanie makes friends with girls her own age while younger sister Emmy seems scared most of the time; she becomes obsessed with the story surrounding a nearby cave said to allow communication with spirits from beyond… can she talk to grandma again?

Rest assured — “Seagrass” isn’t your usual ghost story although it certainly functions as one on an emotional level too: those decisions we make as grown-ups about our families and partners haunt us forever. It is about the desire to know more about someone we can never learn anything new about – every time Pat (Chris Pang) or Carol asks Judith questions regarding her mom, she regrets not having answers for them. Grief is not only loss; it also involves lamenting over every conversation that was never had with people who are now dead.

During counseling sessions seemingly intended to bring them closer together but pushing them further apart, Steve and Judith begin to emotionally splinter in a way which could shatter their whole family. Pat and Carol represent a false ideal as they become increasingly dangerous objects of comparison — “If they can do it, then so can we” mentality often poisons genuine growth. Hama-Brown’s film brilliantly captures how easy it is for humans to compare sufferings while downplaying both, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Because of that feeling something bad might happen at any moment, much of “Seagrass” feels like a slow-burn thriller — one of those timeless tales where adults get lost in their own world while children pay the price; literally most times. The sense of foreboding runs so deep that even a scene where Emmy slowly swims across a pool towards a purple ball she has been eyeing feels simultaneously joyous and slightly scary — just like childhood itself always does.

A sense of envy from Steve to Pat forms early on that seems cliché and unnecessary but actually it acts as a doorstop for more interesting concepts. Also, I can’t help feeling that this sort of compressed, character-focused storytelling is usually most successful when it doesn’t push two hours. Hama-Brown tends to let scenes drag, especially with the kids being kids, though both Breitkreuz and Marthaller are so good in their roles it’s impossible not to want to see them bring alive the kind of unalloyed joy that exists before people start wondering why they’re sad grown-ups.

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