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The nuanced Rabbit Hole mourns a child's loss
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Kidman registers despair in stillness.
Kidman registers despair in stillness.

Rabbit Hole is pretty modest, dramatically speaking, and that is its virtue. Watching this very good melodrama about grieving parents, I kept thinking, not with kindness, of another melodrama about grieving parents: Robert Redford's Ordinary People, which is emotionally flamboyant to the point of camp.

Rabbit Hole keeps finding sorrow in small moments, as when the suburban wife Becca (Nicole Kidman) puts on a suit and heads for Manhattan. Struggling with her loneliness, she drops in to visit old friends at her former workplace. But they mostly don't work there anymore, and when she tells a little lie to extricate herself, Kidman registers Becca's embarrassment and shame almost imperceptibly. The effect is devastating.

Director John Cameron Mitchell's previous films are the provocative Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but he is successfully restrained here in making what is essentially a genre picture, an old-fashioned weepie. Part of that success owes to Kidman, who has a fine, subtle turn. She registers despair in stillness, in brief flashes of anger. That's a far cry from the mannered histrionics of, say, her Eyes Wide Shut character. Here Kidman seems - what's the word? - human.

Mitchell surrounds his big movie star with lesser-known actors like Aaron Eckhart and Tammy Blanchard, who play Howie and Tammy, Becca's husband and sister. That's a wise casting choice, because their smart performances ground Kidman's. I'm especially taken by wonderful Dianne Wiest as Becca's mother. Wiest has made a career of playing women like this, somehow soft and sharp at once.

Months after their toddler son was killed in a car accident, Becca and Howie are as much strangers as spouses. They're processing the death differently. Howie is more willing to make use of resources available to grieving people, like the support group where Becca makes a horrific gaffe. (It's partly a testament to David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay, which he adapted from his Pulitzer-winning play, that this uncomfortable scene is also grimly funny.) Even so, Howie regularly gives in to screaming rage. He also flirts with another grieving parent, a friendly woman played by Sandra Oh.

Becca, meanwhile, puts up a front of normalcy, but we sense that her sadness is deeper, more shattering. With the secretiveness of a cheating spouse, she arranges meetings with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage boy who inadvertently killed her son. Their scenes together are deliciously ambiguous. Partly they are about Becca's healing impulse to forgive. But for Becca he also turns out to be a proxy for her dead child, and this doesn't seem healthy. When he hits an adolescent milestone, prom night, she is inconsolable.

As you'd expect, Jason is haunted by the child's death, and also by an unhappy family life. It's a small but important role, and his misery is the source of the film's title. He writes and draws a comic book called Rabbit Hole, about alternative universes in which, among other things, people can be happier than their analogs are in this one.

Becca is moved by his work, and therein lies a compelling insight (and an elegantly understated one) about the consoling power of art, including comic books.

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