Better Days: The Shadows (and Sunshine) of Grief

What is the appropriate amount of grief?

This is the key question behind Better Days, a film that taps into the unpredictable nature of grief while still celebrating the life we have yet to live. Better Days follows Kate (Sonja Smits), a grieving wife who has just lost her husband of over thirty years. Broken by the loss, Kate withdraws into a bottle of vodka—and his Halloween costumes. Feeling lost and alone, she soon befriends three local teenagers who are fascinated by her enthusiasm for dressing up. But, as she and her new friends bond, Kate’s family become increasingly concerned. Suddenly, Kate doesn’t seem like the woman they once knew and they begin to demand that things go back to ‘normal’, whatever that means.

Written and directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin, Better Days is a fascinating blend of contradictions that seamlessly blend together. In some moments, Days is irreverent, dark and genuinely hilarious. In others, it’s contemplative with a furious soul. 

Even so, this constant pivot between tones somehow feels… honest.

In the best of ways, Better Days taps into the chaos of grief, leaning into the eb and flow of emotion that can travel in inexplicable directions. Whereas many other films track the five stages as a linear process, Carr-Wiggin unleashes the erratic nature of grief as it changes wildly from moment to moment. (In fact, the most stable moments of the film come as Kate speaks directly to the camera. Here, she’s able to clearly communicate her feelings, as though we are the only ones who are truly willing to listen to her heart.) For most films, this simply wouldn’t—or couldn’t—work. But Better Days is surprisingly genuine, piecing its emotional journey together in ways that feels authentic.

But much of the success of these Days is due to a remarkable performance by Smits as the grieving Kate. By handing the reins to the veteran Smits, Better Days is in the best of hands. By leaning into the madness of the moment, Smits is absolutely on fire from beginning to end. This is a film that delves into the chaos of grief and, as a result, requires a chaotic performance but she knows exactly when to hit the right notes. And Better Days’ unique tone gives Smits ample material with which to play. With moments ranging from comedy to gravitas, she offers a beautiful and complete performance.

Even in its silliest of moments, Days takes itself very seriously. In fact, the film’s playfulness even seems to further illustrate Kate’s sadness as she attempts to piece her soul back together. After losing her husband, Kate’s world is shattered. Having been married for over thirty years, her world had become constructed around him as a key pillar. Now, after his loss, she isn’t entirely sure how to function. Wanting to scream, she finds herself muffled by the expectations of others who expect her to ‘be okay’. 

Kate is not okay. But few are willing to truly pay attention.

Whether it’s her children’s inability to listen or her friend’s (deeply troubling) relationship issues, Kate seems to feel more alone than ever. She is told that Better Days lie ahead. But, in the shadow of grief, who can see light on the horizon? She laughs, cries, screams, dreams of violent outbursts, dances and attempts to claw through each moment as best she can. There is little method to her moments as she fumbles through the hours. Instead, these moments make her seem more real. 

But, therein lies the true beauty of Days. While her feelings take on many forms, Kate’s struggle to survive her grief is far more than simply trying to cope with the sadness over her husband’s death. Instead, Days is as much about revival as it is about mourning. Although her husband’s time on Earth has come to a close, Kated still has life left to live yet she seems to have forgotten how to do so. As she processes the overwhelming nature of her feelings, she starts to figure out what it means to begin again. While death is inevitable, so too does it not necessarily mean the end for everyone else. 

Because, maybe, there actually are Better Days ahead.

Better Days is available on digital and VOD now.

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