The late Cloris Leachman delivers a touching swansong in this small-scale Canadian drama
By Allan Hunter
The late Cloris Leachman remains an inveterate scene stealer in Jump, Darling, a small-scale drama that provides her with a touching swansong. Phil Connell’s compact tale of a young drag queen’s emotional travails finds its heart in the chemistry between Leachman and co-star Thomas Duplessie. LGBTQ festivals should provide some traction for a modest tale that will feel at home on domestic screens.
Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings
Writer/director Connell wastes little time in scene-setting, instead propelling us into the world of aspiring actor Russell (Duplessie) who has found a second wind and a potential new career as Toronto drag queen Fishy Falters.
His commitment to drag provokes a parting of the ways with wealthy, status conscious boyfriend Justin (Andrew Bushell). After a disastrous appearance at Peckers night club, Russell decides to leave town and take temporary sanctuary with his elderly grandmother Margaret (Leachman) in Prince Edward County.
Margaret is all too aware of her frailties and forgetfulness but remains determined to avoid becoming a resident at the local Millbrook Care Home. Russell’s arrival could be the solution to her problem.
Jump, Darling travels along predictable roads as family secrets are revealed, ghosts of the past confronted and separate generations discover the strength to be true to themselves. What makes the journey worthwhile are the performances. Leachman completed two further films before her death earlier this year aged 94. This is her last starring role. She is physically frail but delivers a sardonic one-liner with impeccable comic timing and brings out the poignancy in a spirited, frightened woman whose final wish is to have a good death in her own home. Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings and it feels as if the film belongs to Margaret.
Russell may be trying to figure out his future but there feels less at stake for his character as he dallies with elusive bartender Zacahry (Kwaku Adu-Poku) and brings his drag persona to brighten up local bar Hannah’s Hovel.
Duplessie makes a convincing drag artiste. There is some of the relish of Tim Curry’s Frank n Furter in his Fishy Falters and Connell captures his committed lip-synching performances with dynamic camerawork and sharp editing. The film also features appearances from real life Toronto drag acts Tynomi Banks, Fay Slift and Miss Fiercalicious.
Cinematographer Viktor Cahoj conveys the charms of this wine country corner of rural Canada that are compiled into attractive montages. It is a promising first feature but the characters surrounding Russell are thinly drawn, especially Justin and Zachary. Russell’s exasperated mother Ene (Linda Kash) seems to exist merely to chide and then reconcile.
Connell’s need to keep the narrative forever moving forward comes at a cost. Jump, Darling has a trim running time but a little more complexity or contemplation would have been welcome. The lack of depth in the supporting characters is more apparent when the focus returns to the emotional plight of Margaret in her final days which feels very real and very moving.
The Oscar documentary shortlist abounds with memorable love stories—between a woman and her incarcerated husband in Time, between a man and a mollusk in My Octopus Teacher, and in Dick Johnson Is Dead, between a daughter and her aging father.
Of those three films, Dick Johnson Is Dead qualifies as the most unusual stylistically. Director Kirsten Johnson, faced with her beloved father’s cognitive decline, conceived various outlandish scenarios in which her dad might die, and then filmed them.
“The premise of the movie is that we were going to kill my father over and over again with the help of stunt people until he really died for real. Why? Because we wanted to keep bringing him back to life,” Johnson tells Deadline. “I think we desperately needed to laugh because dementia will rip your heart out and you could just cry for decades if you didn’t find a way to laugh at it.”
In one scene, an air conditioner falls from high above on top over her father, crushing him. In another he takes an awful tumble down a flight of stairs, ending up in a twisted heap. Dick Johnson, a man with a genial disposition, takes part in this filmic experiment with endearing enthusiasm.
“I think cinema is play. And my father is ‘game,’ he’s game to participate in this,” Johnson comments. “He thought the idea was hilarious and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.’”
Before encroaching dementia prompted his retirement, Dick Johnson worked for decades as a psychiatrist. Perhaps appropriately, the subconscious mind informed the documentary from the start.
“I had this crazy dream where there was this casket and a man sat up—it wasn’t my dad—he said, ‘I’m Dick Johnson and I’m not dead yet,’” the director recalls. “I probably did unconsciously understand that the dementia had begun. I wasn’t consciously aware of it at that moment, but I think in the way that dreams and brains try to tell you things, now when I think about it, it was an unrecognizable man who was my father, which is sort of what the dementia would do. I think in some ways that dream was like, ‘Wake up! Your dad is changing.’”
Johnson had previously gone through the agonizing experience of losing her mother to Alzheimer’s.
“Honestly, I was like so mad to have had my mom already have it. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was sort of enraged at the idea of having to face it again,” she confesses. “It just felt like, ‘Let me come up with another plan, another idea, another way,’ this Holy Grail of, ‘Could this be a funny movie? Please?’ We had some fun doing it and we had some tears doing it.”
The Netflix film, a strong contender for an Oscar nomination, premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It’s gone on to win multiple honors, including Best Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, as well as best writing for Johnson and Nels Bangerter and best editing for Bangerter at the IDA Documentary Awards. Dick Johnson Is Dead was named one of the top five documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review and has earned a Producers Guild Award nomination.
On paper, the concept of the film might strike some as morbid. But audiences have responded emotionally to the film’s whimsical and yet somehow frank way of confronting the prospect of a loved one’s demise.
“From my point of view, facing pain—when you can do it with people you love and with the capacity to attempt to build something new out of it, whether it’s a new relationship or whether it is transformed into some form of art—I think that that is the only hope we have,” Johnson observes. “That, in some ways, is how we have survived as people—we sort of offer back out to each other these forms or witness.”
Dick Johnson Is Dead resonates forcefully in a time when Covid-19 has claimed so many lives.
“The pandemic in some ways has opened every human up to the experience of anticipatory grief. We don’t know how much we’re going to lose and we’re afraid of how much we’re going to lose,” Johnson says. “If you love a person with a degenerative disease [like dementia] you have a great deal of experience with anticipatory grief. You’re grieving about what you’ve lost already, what you might lose, what you’re not sure when you’re going to lose.”
That’s particularly difficult to contemplate in Johnson’s case, having a father who’s meant everything to her.
“He has treasured me for the person that I am and allowed me to be sort of as big as I wanted to be…He saw me. I think so many of us struggle with not being seen or not being allowed,” Johnson tells Deadline. “That’s who he is and who he was. Even in the advanced dementia now he’ll call me and say, ‘I just want to make sure you know I love you.’”
Sarah Weaver has combined tragedy and comedy in her webcomics as a way to cope with the death of her older sister
By Ashley Nerbovig
Monotony was kindling for Sarah Weaver’s burning grief.
After the June 2010 death of her older sister, Melissa Weaver, in a plane crash in Northwest Montana, Sarah would fumble over familiar questions such as, “How many siblings do you have?”
The tragedy shook Sarah’s entire worldview. For years she plodded along. She moved to Washington D.C. and took a job creating retirement policy at the U.S. Department of Treasury. Her boss would tell her the work she did made a meaningful difference. But Sarah didn’t see it. In 2016, she wondered whether she’d chosen where she was, or if she’d just ended up there.
In two years, Sarah traveled to 45 countries on six continents. When her travels ended, she returned to Polson, settling near where Melissa lived before she died. And now, 10 years after the plane crash, Sarah is using her webcomic, “Adventures with Vrah” to write about death, depression and diarrhea.
The combination of tragedy and comedy was appealing.
“It’s what has helped me cope and move through my own grief,” Sarah, 32, said. “I think it might help other people, or hope that it will help other people.”
Sarah was living in London at the time and staying with her aunt and uncle. She was about a week into an internship when she opened a Facebook message that read “Sarah, I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. Let me know if I can do anything.”
The cryptic message left her scared and confused. The surreal feeling stayed with her as she got ahold of her parents. They were already in Polson with Sarah’s other two siblings, Emily and Joe, trying to get more information about the whereabouts of Melissa’s plane.
On June 27, 2010, Brian Williams and newly licensed pilot, Sonny Kless, picked up Melissa and her friend Erika Hoefer for a sightseeing trip over Glacier National Park. A woman reported seeing the plane, but no one reported seeing it crash. Officials believe the plane lost lift over a box canyon near the National Bison Range, roughly 100 miles south of the West Glacier entrance to the park, and dropped out of the sky.
A flight plan wasn’t filed before the four left, which made it difficult for rescue teams to know where to look. Sarah remembers hoping Melissa would be found alive. But their mother, Kathy Weaver, said she knew the moment she heard the plane went missing that Melissa was dead, even if a very small part of her thought that if Melissa did survive the crash, she would do anything to come home. She’d walk on two broken legs, Kathy said.
After three days of searching, the crash site was found. The plane had caught fire. Melissa, Hoefer, Williams and Kless all died in the crash.
“For years I’d hope that they were wrong,” Sarah said. “I’d think, ‘Everything was burned, so how do they even know it was the right plane?’”
Melissa, who was the oldest of the four Weaver siblings, was 23 when she died. Sarah, 21 at the time and 18 months younger than Melissa, was thrust unprepared into the oldest sibling leadership role. Emily Weaver, who was 19, had finished her first year of college. Joe, 17, was still in high school and living in Billings with their parents, Kathy and Dan Weaver.
For Sarah, a large part of working through the Melissa’s death was scribbling down her thoughts and doodling. It started as a way to keep memories of Melissa fresh, a way to help her siblings remember Melissa, who was four years older than Emily and six years older than Joe. Sarah wasn’t an artist. She’d studied finance at UM. But, after she showed one of the comics she’d made to a friend, he encouraged her to share it online. She launched her comic site in 2016, and since then her style has continued to evolve. One of the inspirations for her series was Allie Brosh, the creator of “Hyperbole and Half” and a fellow University of Montana graduate.
Years before Melissa died, Sarah watched a movie about a wife who called her husband’s cellphone and listened to his voicemail while crying in bed. It was one of the saddest things she’d ever seen, she said.
“So when Melissa died, I remember thinking back to that scene and being like, ‘I’m in the sad movie,’” Sarah said.
Sarah would still call Melissa and send her Facebook messages until one day when she called, a man answered. Melissa’s cellphone number had been reassigned to a stranger. It was devastating, but Sarah didn’t want to stop calling her sister, so she kept calling Jeff. She pretended they were lifelong friends. Jeff usually hung up on her.
One day, she got a text from Jeff’s son, telling her she was freaking out his dad and to please stop calling. She did, but she still hopes that Jeff will realize one day why she called so often and they’ll become friends. She never explained why she had “his” number. She never told him about Melissa. The comic she made about the experience with Jeff is one of her family’s favorites.
“It was just easier to play a character, a game — it was too sad,” Sarah said. “What if he did care why I was calling him?”
As Sarah’s perspective on Melissa’s death evolved, so did the webcomic. It stopped being about who Sarah was without Melissa and became about Sarah.
After spending two years abroad, Sarah returned to live in Polson. She set up a Patreon for her webcomic and thinks about turning it into a book one day. In moments of uncertainty, she wonders if it’s wrong to link her career path to her sister’s death, but ultimately she hopes her art could help people.
Emily understands Sarah’s doubts but believes in her mission.
“The fact of the matter is, it happened, and we have to make as much good of it as we can,” Emily said.
Melissa’s death set off a chain of events, including unexpectedly positive developments. For one, Emily transferred from Carroll College to the University of Montana to live with Sarah after Melissa’s death and met her husband there. But the family members were isolated from one another in their grief, Emily said, and it took awhile for them to repair themselves. Every year that passes, it gets better.
The family got together this year on the 10th anniversary of the plane crash. For the first time, it felt like it wasn’t just about being sad about Melissa’s death, Emily said.
“It feels like everyone’s gotten through some of their grief,” Emily said, “and that let us come back together as a family.”
The siblings’ father, Dan, said his grief over Melissa’s death is like a heavy coat he has to wear year round. It unnerved him at first that Sarah was going to write about it. Over time, though, he’s gotten more enjoyment from Sarah’s comic. He learns things about the kids that he’d never known.
The public nature of the comic has been beneficial to Sarah. Beyond people writing to say how her comic helped them, having it as her full-time job forces her to be frank with people about her life. The process of writing and explaining it to people, sometimes in different languages, made it easier to answer the questions that stumped her after Melissa died.
Before she and her husband took their two-year trip all over the globe, they’d gone on a shorter trip to Indonesia. There, a woman asked Sarah what she did for work. When Sarah showed the woman a translation of her comic’s themes, the woman pointed to the word “depression” and said, “Yes, I know this.”
“It helps me,” Sarah said. “It’s powerful when someone can say, ‘I know, maybe, a piece of your pain.”
If you are reading this, I am dead. Or I am close to death. Or you have been snooping through my papers.
Let’s assume that I am dead. I HEREBY REQUEST that you, my relatives and kin, carry out my wishes regarding the following:
MY LETTERS: As you will see in the garage, boxes No. 12 through 26 contain my letters. I have saved every letter I have ever received, including letters from collection agencies. Please go through the letters, reading each one, and divide them into important and unimportant letters.
I donate the important letters to you, my relatives, to divide fairly among yourselves. I urge you to go back through the “unimportant” letters and see if there might still be some important ones in there.
MY PETS: Please adopt and provide loving homes for my dogs, Snappy and Bitey; my cat, Sprayer; and my goldfish, Methuselah.
MY CLOTHING: Please help yourself to my suits. You will notice that, because of my unusual physique, the suit pants are size Extra Extra Large and Extra Extra Extra Large, while the suit jackets are size Tiny and Extra Tiny.
MY LIBRARY: Please donate my collection of books—all five of them—to the local library.
PORNO: Also, please donate my pornography collection (boxes 30 to 45) to the local library.
MY COINS: In the attic, you will find many, many quart jars of pennies. I’m not sure how many. Please spend these pennies on whatever you would like. You may want to cash them in at the bank. However, I’m told that banks will not accept pennies unless they are wrapped in coin wrappers. Maybe that could be a family project, to remember me by.
MY GUNS: As some of you know, I have many guns, scattered throughout the house. Most are loaded, so please be careful opening drawers, closets, and medicine cabinets.
MY PUSH LAWNMOWER: Please donate this to Goodwill, after first cleaning off all the bits of grass and dog poop that have got stuck on it over the years. Also, please sharpen the blades with the hand sharpener (somewhere in box 28). Oil and rebalance the wheels.
MY CAR: Sorry, but it’s still stuck in the surf at Party Beach. It’s yours if you can tow it out.
MY “MURDER”: Please send an anonymous letter to the police, claiming that my friend Don killed me.
MY SAFE-DEPOSIT BOX: Attached to this letter is a key. It is the key to my safe-deposit box. Take the key to the bank and open the box. Inside you will find another key. This is the spare key to the box. Take both keys to the bank officer in charge of safe-deposit boxes and close out the account. You may have to fill out some paperwork and pay for back rent.
TRAPDOOR: The trapdoor no longer works. I think the neighborhood kids broke it. Please cover the button with a piece of duct tape.
SKULL: As you’ve probably noticed, there is a human skull on the shelf in the dining room. This was sold to me as the skull of Khrushchev, the Russian leader. It was a damned lie! I don’t even think it’s Russian! Still, it’s pretty cool. First dibs gets it. (Suggestion: as a funny gag, put a cigarette between its teeth, like he’s smoking it.)
MY WIND CHIMES: As you know, I have more than a hundred wind chimes hanging down from the eaves of my house. Please help yourself. Unfortunately, some of the wind chimes have been damaged by the next-door neighbors.
MY REMAINS: Please have me cremated. Then form the ashes into the shape of me. Then deep-fry me. Then bury me with full military honors (even though I was never in the military).
MY HOUSE: A real-estate agent told me that my house, if it were totally renovated (plumbing, electrical, roof, etc.), and if the bats and raccoons and yellow jackets could be expelled from the attic, and if somehow the house’s “tilt” could be fixed, would sell for about what I paid for it forty years ago.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “Man, the beach is awesome, but what if it had more death?” If yes, then oh boy, we have a treat for you. This pink coffin pool float (complete with lid) was created by Canadian designers Andrew Greenbaum and Ian Felton who launched a Pom Pom Floats brand to make their dream come true. It perfectly encapsulates most people’s two biggest fears of being buried alive and drowning. So much fun, right?
The answer might seem simple, but in the hands of Lesley Hazleton, the question takes us on a surprisingly humorous and thought-provoking journey into what it would actually mean to live forever. And whether we’d truly want to. A frequent TED.com speaker and ‘Accidental Theologist,’ Hazleton uses wit and wisdom to challenge our ideas not only about death, but about what it is to live well.
Lesley Hazleton has traced the roots of conflict in several books, including compelling ‘flesh-and-blood’ biographies of Muhammad and Mary, and casts “an agnostic eye on politics, religion, and existence” on her blog, AccidentalTheologist.com. Her newest book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, celebrates the agnostic stance as “rising above the flat two-dimensional line of belief/unbelief, creating new possibilities for how we think about being in the world.” In it, she explores what we mean by the search for meaning, invokes the humbling perspective of infinity and reconsiders what we talk about when we talk about soul.