By Mark Ziobro
In a time period when less than a year ago 20-year-old Michelle Carter was sentenced to 15 months in prison for a series of encouraging text messages to her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, that led to his eventual suicide, Director Matt Walting’s funereal “Just Say Goodbye” is not only a call to arms for suicide prevention but, more importantly, awareness.
The movie, filmed on a scant budget of $13K, imbues its message slowly, carefully, and without apology. This is an important film, that works not by its acting, but its tone and lasting effect. Suicide in movies is often preceded by motive – as penance for wrongs perpetrated by the offender, or a way to escape inescapable crimes. But we seldom see a focused and unforgiving picture that paints suicide as the disease it is, a disease that affects not just its victims, but those it leaves in its wake.
“Just Say Goodbye” is sold to us, not by its intended victim Jesse (a subdued actor named Max MacKenzie), but his best friend, Sarah, played by Katerina Eichenberger with a skill so sharp it defies her slim filmography that includes only this, a TV mini-series, and an independent short. She learns early in the film that her best friend Jesse intends to take his own life on his birthday, weeks away, coinciding with a trip she has planned to New York City with her father. She takes the news poorly, spending the rest of the film trying to change his mind with everything she knows – reason, emotional entreaty, pleading…but he seems set in his course.
The adults in this film are absent – physically, emotionally, or both. Jesse’s father () is an unemployed and verbally abusive drunk whose wife killed herself when Jesse was 6-years-old. He doesn’t bring this up in healthy ways unless pressed, remarking at one point he drinks because Jesse’s presence reminds him of his wife’s passing. There’s an additional subplot on this, involving a wealthy neighbor and her son Chase that is a constant bully to Jesse, but it’s rather distracting, and to say more would take away from the film as a whole, so I will not comment on it further.
The acting is hit or miss. Eichenberger steals the show, acting circles around Jesse, his father, the aforementioned Chase (Jesse Walters), and most everyone else in equal measure. Sarah is radiant, gorgeous, inspirational, and caring – representing an existence and beauty Jesse could have if he chooses life. In a perfect piece of filmmaking, this beauty exists not as something as clichéd as romance, but something as sublime as the kind of love and acceptance only true friends can offer.
Eichenberger imbues this with ease – she’s easily the best actor in any indie I’ve seen in the last year or more. This is no more evident than in the film’s greatest piece of cinematography, as a terrified Sarah, hanging on to fleeting hope, repairs a calendar she has ripped in half – hanging it between one poster that says, “life is a beautiful ride,” and another that reads, “perseverance” – in one of the smartest shots I’ve seen in an indie, ever.
As Jesse, MacKenzie’s acting is sardonic and irreverent for most of the film – until he’s forced to confront his feelings for Sarah and, in equal measure, life without her when she will eventually leave him for college, in a scene that is utterly heartbreaking. Waiting and writer Layla O’Shea couple this with sympathy for Jesse’s character, which is written as an irrational path of self-destruction. Jesse often makes you angry at him, while also causing sorrow for the circumstance he’s found himself in. This is especially true toward the film’s conclusion as he tries all the wrong things to get better while avoiding the one thing he should truly do.
Ancillary characters such as Chase are painted thinly and serve mostly to show the desperation Sarah finds herself in (even as the film paints Chase in a quasi-sympathetic light as we see his absentee and entitled mother contributing to his upbringing in catastrophic ways). While Jesse means to kill himself, it’s Sarah’s