You don’t see much of Owen after the opening frames of “An Elephant in the Room,” but his early observations about the death of his father grow more powerful with each passing minute in Katrine Philp’s arresting documentary about how children process loss. After observing the young boy describe his feelings in colors, with purple, red and blue standing in for his anger and frustration, it becomes apparent that Philp, too, will need a different vocabulary to articulate the typically ineffable as she settles into Morristown, New Jersey where a program called Good Grief has taken root, providing holistic therapy to kids who have recently lost a loved one and educate what family they still have to sensitively to work through it with them.
Philp rises to that challenge with a graceful, largely unsentimental year-in-the-life in which the main character is never seen as it drifts through the lives of four families that grapple with nearly the same set of circumstances, but handle the fallout in different ways. The film evades much of a traditional set-up and barely outlines what Good Grief does, instead concentrating on the incremental effects of their methodology where the kids gradually come to their own conclusions about what death means to them. While there are visits to the center where there are group activities and themed rooms to take children individually when dealing with certain emotions that might be brought up, Philp’s follow-up at home yield more unvarnished looks at the small steps towards normalcy amidst continual reminders of what’s gone.
If this sounds heavy, “An Elephant in the Room” is about as conscientious of emotional triggers as any Good Grief counselor would be, not only approaching its subjects with the appropriate delicacy, but taking great care to meet them on their own terms to illustrate what a child believes and comprehends can be radically different than the adults in their life. One of the film’s most devastating moments comes when clouds gather on the day the young Peter visits his mother’s memorial, and while he mentions that he sees heaven behind the clouds, his uncle struggles with the purity of the response when the answer is far more complicated, given his life experience, and likewise, the mother of the five-year old Mikayla bursts into tears when her daughter thinks her father was “really old” when he passed away at 53.
Giving the kids the room to speak throughout without their older relatives as intermediaries, whether it’s Peter, Mikayla or the two pairs of siblings Philp follows — Nolan & Nora and Nicky and Kimmy — allows “The Elephant in the Room” a perspective that surely can be overlooked in largely generalized discussions about how best to prepare them for loss, talk that should be quickly invalidated when it becomes so clear that everyone’s grieving process is so specifically personal. As you watch some of the children make amends with their new reality and others continue to struggle – a particularly fascinating process when new kids join the group at Good Grief, potentially reopening old wounds for others when their pain is so fresh – Philp crafts a film just as unique as their individual responses to offer something that may resist offering any answers as far as an appropriate way forward, but actively demonstrates what it observes as being the effective form of help in its boundless empathy.
“The Elephant in the Room” does not yet have U.S. distribution.