Back at the Staircase starts in a moment of panic. Trisha (Jenifer Lafleur) is trying to turn her car around to park, but her wheels grind farther and farther into the dirt. Overwhelmed, she quickly drives away when the car finally turns. Her family, Ian (Logan Lark) and Margaret (Mickey O’Hagan), only add to the noise.
Margaret, freshly out of prison on dropped arson charges, is being celebrated; her mother is throwing a party. After a few too many pre-party drinks, her mother has an accident and ends up in a coma. The family members, stressed and erratic, are now stuck in the house, alternating hospital visits and trying to stay sane while they wait for her recovery. Antagonism runs in the family.
I feel like what we see in Back at the Staircase is the breakdown of a family in the moments literally following a drunken tumble down the stairs. However, this breakdown isn’t a traditional breakdown because there was never really any cohesion to begin with, only friction held together by faltering glue.
The fact that the film happens in the aftermath of the accident – leaving us to observe the ways in which family, whose members are so radically different, cope and contend with fear, sadness and uncertainty – gives the film a chaotic dynamism.
Each character is afforded a kind of portrait. Phillip (Stephen Plunkett) is judgmental and infuriatingly condescending; he tries too hard with women, and he is responsible to an annoying degree. After Phillip approaches Heidi (Heather LaVine) and tells her an elaborate story as a way to spend time with her, Margaret exposes him for it.
Margaret is spacey and explosive. Ian is well meaning, sensitive and naïve. Jody (Leonora Pitts), Ian’s girlfriend, is cutthroat and a little divisive but supportive. Trisha is a little neurotic, understandably irritable and very sentimental. This is a family who knows each other intimately. This intimacy is conveyed through the most hostile means: shit talking, judgment and mean thoughts and feelings actualized.
This is film that shows you what it’s like when people who are entangled in a bad happenstance don’t have any breathing room – stuck in a house under less than lovely circumstances, leading to hard feelings.
This film operates like one big roast of the characters. They tell each other hard truths, truths that are difficult to witness. These truths also lead to character complexity. This is quite a feat based on the limited background of the characters and the compartmentalization of the film’s space.
Stylistically this film is a treat to watch. I love films that use selective focus, soft lighting, closeups, muted color palettes and fluid camera movement. These features make the film feel tactile and textured. The film’s style brings you close to the characters and their feelings, which gives their harsh words an extra bite.
The frequent use of close-ups creates a physical proximity to the characters that almost makes you want to close your eyes and cover your ears, as if the malice might spread to you as a spectator. The feelings are real, and the way they manifest hit a little too close to home. If you’ve ever felt anger or pettiness or unwarranted bitterness toward a family member, this film will remind you of those feelings in an uncomfortable way.