Rabbit Hole

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“Rabbit Hole” is the movie equivalent of deep-tissue massage: painful but cathartic; exhausting but satisfying. It is also, like massage, more enjoyable if you disrobe first, but that’s true of most things.

We are making jokes because “Rabbit Hole” — adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer-winning play, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) — makes us sigh melancholically when we think of it, like a meaningful piece of art or a particularly sad song. Yet it does not induce despair. We come away from it feeling hope and optimism, reminded that while tragedy is inevitable, we need not be defeated by it.

The story will not sell you. I kind of don’t want to tell you what it is, because then you won’t want to see it. But here goes: “Rabbit Hole” is about a married couple who are grieving after the death of their young son.

I know! That was my reaction too! But there’s a lot of beauty to be mined from that depressing-sounding scenario, thanks to well-drawn characters, impeccable performances, and sensitive direction. Where most films of this nature would become maudlin and manipulative, “Rabbit Hole” stays honest and subtle, refusing to hit us over the head with clunky symbolism or blatant tear-jerking.

The married couple, Becca and Howie, are played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, both giving career-best performances. Becca is coping by gradually removing all traces of Danny from their home. Howie is reluctant to let go of anything, but would like to have another child someday, maybe soon. There is no “right” way to deal with grief. But what Becca and Howie are doing wrong is working separately instead of together. Turned off by all the “God talk” at the weekly support group for grieving parents, Becca stops attending, while Howie keeps going. Their lives diverge in other ways, too.

Kidman has gotten most of the attention — and perhaps rightfully so, as her character is the driving force of the story — but she and Eckhart are both heartbreakingly good. Becca and Howie do not merely represent different methods of coping with loss; they’re full-blown characters, each with a distinct history and personality.

Surrounding them are several crucial supporting characters. Gaby (Sandra Oh) is a fellow attendee of the support group who befriends Howie. Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), Becca’s reckless younger sister, is pregnant, which produces awkwardness for someone who has just lost a child. Becca and Izzy’s mother — no stranger to grief herself — is played with great tenderness and matronly wisdom by Dianne Wiest.

Most surprising, though, is a newcomer named Miles Teller, who plays a neighborhood teen with whom Becca develops a curious friendship. I don’t know this Teller kid’s story, but anyone who acts opposite Nicole Kidman without being outmatched — and in his first major role, no less — should have a bright future.

What Teller does right is the same thing everyone else in the cast does right. He doesn’t overplay it. The emotions involved in the story are intense, but that doesn’t mean the performances have to be grand. Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay, despite having its origins on the theater stage, is neither theatrical nor stagy. It doesn’t rely on histrionics or “moments.” Instead, it builds naturally toward an emotional climax, then resolves just as naturally from there.

The director, John Cameron Mitchell, shows as much care with someone else’s writing as he did with his own in “Hedwig” and “Shortbus.” He lets the script’s darkly funny moments break the tension as necessary — I will always love drunk Dianne Wiest in the bowling alley — and coaxes sympathetic performances from the cast. (Anton Sanko’s lovely musical score is a perfect fit, too: gorgeous, sublime, never emphatic or intrusive.)

“Rabbit Hole,” easily one of the best dramas of 2010, is also one of the most uncluttered. It takes us through a dark tunnel, yes, but it reminds us, with graceful simplicity, that there’s light at the end of it.

A- (1 hr., 31 min.; PG-13, one F-word, a lot of intense emotional themes.)

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