Rachel Getting Married

The character at the center of “Rachel Getting Married” is Rachel’s sister, Kym, a barely recovering drug addict and alcoholic who has gotten out of her latest rehab stint just in time for Rachel’s wedding. But why, you ask, if the movie is about Kym, is it named after her sister? As it happens, that is the very question Kym is asking, at least in principle. If Rachel getting married is the important thing happening this weekend, that means Kym is somehow NOT the most important thing. And that’s the hard truth facing Kym in this expertly acted, carefully crafted drama.

Kym, played by Anne Hathaway, is an intelligent young woman from an educated, socially liberal Connecticut family. She has been in trouble for as long as anyone in the film can remember — it is the defining aspect of her personality. She and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) had a little brother who died years ago, which exacerbated Kym’s dysfunction. Now, after nine months in a treatment facility, she’s back at the Buchman family’s large house while chaotic preparations for the lavish, multi-cultural backyard wedding are in full bloom.

The sisters’ reunion when Kym first comes home is touching. While we intuit that there’s going to be friction between them eventually, their initial reaction to each other is warm, tender, and heartfelt. It sets the tone for the film, which wants to assure us of two things: One, that beneath the turmoil there is great love, and two, that love isn’t always enough. Through it all, Hathaway and DeWitt convey the sisterly bond — tears of joy one minute, strangling each other the next, laughing at a shared memory two minutes after that — with more realism and nuance than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

Kym and Rachel’s eager-to-please father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is all smiles, glad to have his little girl home, wary of letting her drive the car anywhere. He is remarried to a nice woman, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith); his ex-wife, the girls’ mother, is Abby (Debra Winger), also remarried, a little spacey, frequently detached and absent from things. She seems closest in temperament to Kym. Remember, it was her little boy who died all those years ago. I would be interested in seeing Abby’s story.

Rachel’s fiance, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is a black man. The interracial element of the wedding is never mentioned in the film, though it is mentioned quite a bit in reviews of the film, which mention how not-mentioned it is. I take it as another angle of the movie’s central theme, that the world is larger and more diverse than Kym and her problems — and, what’s more, that everyone except Kym seems to already realize this. Rachel and Sidney plan to live in Hawaii. Kym, who is notorious and recognized everywhere she goes in this small town, would do well to get out of her protective bubble, too.

Two more characters are significant. One is Sidney’s best man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), who has flown in for the wedding and is attending local Narcotics Anonymous meetings. It’s there that he and Kym meet, even before they are introduced back at the Buchman house, and they have a natural kinship and a physical attraction. Kieran is a much more well-adjusted ex-addict than Kym is, and he’s able to help some of the others in her family understand where she’s coming from. This puts him in contrast with the other significant character I need to mention, Rachel’s maid of honor, Emma (Anisa George). As Rachel’s best friend, Emma is protective of her and her feelings, and she’s the first one to tactlessly articulate the “not everything revolves around you” motif to Kym. She’s right, of course, though that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a b-word.

The film was written by Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney Lumet) and directed by Jonathan Demme. It’s the first thing Demme has directed since 1998 that wasn’t a documentary or a remake, and it represents a revitalized, ambitious Demme. With the exception of one contrived scene at a hair salon where crucial information is revealed in a stagy fashion, there is no artifice in the film. It all looks and sounds like real people with real connections to each other. Numerous small touches in their speech patterns — nicknames, code words, family jokes — indicate shared history.

I noted before that I would like to see Abby’s life story. That goes for most of the other characters too, and among the film’s many admirable qualities is that its characters actually seem to HAVE life stories. Shooting with handheld cameras in a real house (rather than a set) provides intimacy, while the acting and dialogue are uniformly authentic, even among the minor roles. Sidney’s younger sister has only a few lines, and then she’s glimpsed in the wedding scenes — yet I feel like I know her as well as if I’d spent the weekend in Connecticut with her and the rest of the huge wedding party.

Demme is sympathetic to all of his characters, including Kym, who is needy, yes — but for heaven’s sake, who wouldn’t be needy, given the circumstances? Since the film is mostly seen through her eyes, we’re inclined to be on her side, and we want Rachel and the others to cut her some slack. But we understand how they all feel, too, and we ultimately come to see Kym the way she sees herself: as an outsider, an observer whose sadness is at odds with the happy event she’s trying to be part of.

Anne Hathaway’s performance might be the best one I’ve seen this year: heartbreaking, fierce, funny, and thoroughly believable. But while the hype, deserved though it may be, surrounds her, one shouldn’t overlook the rest of the ensemble. Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, and Debra Winger join her in creating a fractured American family that’s bracingly honest and relatable. The film invites us to immerse ourselves completely in Rachel’s wedding weekend, to witness the family drama and enjoy the simple comedy (yes, there are laughs) that arises from everyday life.

A- (1 hr., 53 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some brief sexuality.)