Despite being set up in the opening scene as the main character, Jesse Eisenberg takes a back seat, allowing relatively unknown talent Devin Druid to shine in Joachim Trier's bittersweet drama Louder Than Bombs. Eisenberg is on solid, if not exceptional form as a son who returns to the family home to find his father and younger brother still in a complete mess after the death of his mother. He injects moments of welcome humour into what could have been a stifling exploration of grief in the modern world.
College lecturer Jonah (Eisenberg) has recently become a father himself and is feeling the weight of responsibility when he is called home to sort through some of his mother's belongings. His father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) hasn't managed to sort through the undeveloped photos that his late conflict photographer wife took before she passed, and now a gallery is hoping to put together an exhibition of her final work. Jonah's younger brother Conrad is unaware of the exact circumstances surrounding his mother's untimely death in a car crash. With a revealing article about to expose the truth about her 'accident', Jonah and Gene must decide whether they should tell the disturbed boy about his mother’s depression before it becomes public knowledge.
Dealing with grief and the fallout from a death in the family runs the risk of piling on clichés and treading ground that has already been amply trodden on by many filmmakers in the past. Even with its familiar troubled teen at the centre of the story, Louder Than Bombs manages to be heard above the clamour of similarly themed stories. This is largely due to terrific performances from its trio of male leads and some perceptive exploration of what it means to live in a time where everything is mediated, and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in life.
Conrad sits in his darkened room, immersed in violent and fantastical videogames where he can become any character he likes, or kill people at will. He is withdrawn and surly, and his father has no idea how to communicate with him. The sadness of this relationship and the catastrophic ways that Gene tries to learn more about his son are tempered by some extremely comical moments. With Jonah helping him to come out of his shell, Conrad blossoms into the film’s raw exposed heart.
Despite bursts of voiceover from a number of different characters, as well as a complex chronology that contains flashbacks within flashbacks, it is really Conrad’s point of view in which we see the world through. His heart on sleeve writings and curious dancing behind not-so-closed doors make him utterly endearing, even if he does spit in a teacher’s face in one scene. Memories and dreams of his mother have a powerful hold on his mind, but it is his fragmented view of the world that resonates most. Like the flashes of his mother’s photos that we occasionally see on screen, or the YouTube videos he consumes daily, Conrad is lost in a disjointed reality, a reality reflected in the inventive structure of the film.
Getting under the skin of a few of its characters is daring, but could easily be accused of a lack of focus. However, Louder Than Bombs has a decent stab at examining not only three generations of men, but also the woman who affected their lives in profound ways. All of the film’s flawed characters deliver moments of heart and humour, but as distressed teen Conrad, it is Devin Druid who deserves the most praise for his exceptional performance.
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