Written by Andrea Gibbs
Directed by Alison Peebles
Starring: Kevin McKidd, Lindsay Duncan, and Paula Sage.
It always amazes me how the simplest productions are often the most detailed and
profound. If you want something bad enough you can make it happen and sometimes the
journey of discovering who you are begins in the most unlikely of places. Afterlife is the
story of three people: a selfish man who has never learned how to love and commit, a
loving mother who is dying of cancer and has lost the ability to teach either of her children
how to live, and a determined young woman who is possessed of more wisdom than anyone ever suspected.
Kenny Brogan (Kevin McKidd) is an ambitious reporter who dreams of leaving Scotland for
the excitement of life in America. He is avidly investigating Peter Mendoza’s assisted suicide
in the hopes of obtaining an interview with the doctor in charge of the case and securing a
coveted position in New York City. He is utterly unaware of the deteriorating condition of his
mother May (Lindsay Duncan). May is the polar opposite of her son. She has given up any
sort of personal identity to care for Kenny’s sister Roberta (Paula Sage), who has Down’s
Syndrome. Kenny sees his family as a burden and he is right when he asserts that May
holds Roberta back, but his reasoning is tainted by selfishness. Years of feeling second place
to Roberta’s needs have fostered anger, hurt, and eventual indifference in Kenny. He has
never learned how to relate to Roberta and he has never been encouraged, or even allowed
to care for her. May, on the other hand, has gotten to the point where all she has in the
world is Roberta and her dependency gives meaning to a life fast slipping away. Roberta
herself has never been consulted on the condition of her family and is considered incapable
of even having an opinion by either Kenny or May, albeit for very different reasons.
The film is riddled with subtle humor to offset the serious subjects of euthanasia and dealing
with the mentally challenged. The scenes at the bingo parlor and the innocence of Roberta
singing in the car for example are relatable and naturally funny. Roberta has no clue—or
care—that her actions might be disturbing anyone. The people who actually know Roberta
find her behavior acceptable, even endearing. Kenny can't get beyond the embarrassment
of a sister who is not ‘normal’. Ruby, (Shirley Henderson) Kenny’s long suffering girlfriend,
is sweet and not as naïve as first appears. She wants to help Roberta grow and to learn
more about Kenny in the process. She refuses to be an enabler for either of them however.
Her character is not well defined but she is crucial to who Kenny eventually becomes.
The subject matter is not revolutionary rather it is the way the film unfolds to the viewer.
The subtle awakening of what Roberta actually can do for herself and her observations of
the world revealed through her artwork. Her decision at the end of the film, which May
would never have considered possible, is the biggest and most ironic surprise of all.
Kenny, who perceived Roberta as a stunted moron is, in fact, the fool for not seeing her
beauty. His self-discovery feels natural because it is so gradual and stuttered. Reconciling
his needs with May's and Roberta's is overwhelming due to the complexity of the issues and
complicated by the emotional distance between the three of them. In a series of incidents
both little and large Kenny reconnects with his family. He starts to want to do the right
thing. When Roberta goes missing the true scope of the situation hits Kenny full force. He
isn't just apologizing for losing her but for not seeing what May was going through and for
not ever being there when it counted. The realization makes the emotional confrontation
between Kenny and May even more powerful to watch.
The journey of all three main characters reaches a plausible conclusion without the
unnecessary syrup so common in big budget films of similar subject matter. Life isn’t
always pretty or neatly wrapped but viewers are left with the impression that a true family
has been reborn and will thrive.