Three haunted sisters, trying to shake past

Allison Janney and Dylan Riley Snyder star in "Life During Wartime," a quasi-sequel to director Todd Solondz's 1998 film "Happiness."

Physicists say that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Todd Solondz says that for every measure of happiness, there is a unequally larger and opposite measure of pain.

How to describe the deadpan, anxiety-fraught films of Solondz? So funny I forgot to laugh? So painful I forgot to cry? Both descriptions apply. His prickly, hypnotic, absorbing tragicomedies are about characters stuck in a discomfort zone, looking backward at past hurt and thus unable to move forward.

Solondz, who made Welcome to the Dollhouse, an unflinching tragicomedy of puberty, and Storytelling, a prescriptive account of how to turn everyday cruelty into confessional fiction, calls Life During Wartime a quasi-sequel to his 1998 film Happiness.

Wartime is a story about those struggling to forgive and forget while holding onto grudges and memories. Thanks to the evocative cinematography of Ed Lachman, it is bathed in a celestial light that cannot penetrate the existential darkness of its characters.

Happiness was Three Sisters set in Maplewood, N.J. - siblings who long for intimacy and instead find distance. The eldest sibling, Trish, a homemaker and mother, learns that her psychologist husband is a pedophile with eyes for the friends of his 11-year-old son. The middle, Helen, is an accomplished novelist with no personal life. The youngest, Joy, is a social worker whose date-from-hell commits suicide and who falls in love with an obscene caller.

Do you need to have seen Happiness to get Wartime? Not necessarily, but it helps.

In Wartime, Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida to start over, Helen (Ally Sheedy) is in Hollywood writing screenplays, and the ironically named Joy (Shirley Henderson) leaves her husband in New Jersey to find sisterly comfort that's never proffered.

Meanwhile, Trish's ex-, Bill (Cíaran Hinds), is released from prison, longing to make connection with the children who think he's dead. Timmy (Dylan Riley Snider), his 13-year-old, is about to become a bar mitzvah and is preparing his speech about what manhood means.

Due to this theme and the poetry of its cinematography, Wartime recalls A Serious Man. Like that Coen Brothers film, Wartime is also a ghost story, its haunted characters trying to shake themselves of the past and live in the present.

Lachman's cinematography glows like William Eggleston's photographs of mundane objects that appear to have halos. Lachman and Solondz have a gift for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and that ray of hope amid the hopelessness.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or

Life During Wartime

Directed by Todd Solondz. With Gaby Hoffmann, Chris Marquette, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Shirley Henderson, Ciarán Hinds, Allison Janney. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 36 minutes.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().