Nothing to Do succeeds in all the ways that matter — it creates a small-scale, intimate narrative that addresses the loss of a parent in an intelligent, emotional, and honest way.
Nothing to Do is a slow movie. Boring, even. Nothing much happens at all. But it’s through this frustrating, painful lack of action that we explore the heartbreaking banality that accompanies the inevitable death of an ill, aging parent.
Kenny, a middle-aged slacker, is in line for a prime timeslot at the radio station he works at when he receives the devastating news that his elderly father has been rushed to the hospital. Worse, he learns that this has happened several times over the past few months and that his father has reached a critical point. Either he can receive extended, painful treatment in an attempt to squeeze a few more months out of life, or go home and die peacefully. His father chooses the latter, and that’s where the story begins.
The film’s title, “Nothing to Do” is cruelly apt: for this family at this moment, it’s painfully clear that there’s nothing for any of them to do but wait. Rachel, the hyper-competent foil to her laidback brother Kenny, has the hardest time dealing with this. She approaches the world at all times with a plan of action, and the idea that she’s supposed to sit around and watch her father die is not something her personality is hard-wired to accept. She needs to believe that there is some treatment that could keep him around a little while longer, that Kenny is being lazy and selfish by going along with hospice care, because the only alternative is that she’s going to lose her dad. But it’s Kenny who ultimately has his best interests at heart, and supports his wish for a quiet, dignified death.
And so we wait. A redundant cycle of exhausting caregiving and false alarms and potential last conversations spins ever onwards until the film’s inevitable conclusion. But as expected as it is, it’s still unrelentingly heartbreaking.
One of the most poignant (and surprisingly funny) moments in the film comes when Kenny is having a heart-to-heart with his father, and he makes him promise that after he dies, he’ll give his son some sort of sign — after some negotiation, they agree that at 2pm after his death, his spirit will turn the bedside lamp on.
It’s our natural instinct to be curious about what happens after death, and even more so to want a sense that our loved ones are still with us. It’s a beautiful scene, made even better by the fact that the film doesn’t abandon its pragmatic approach to the narrative by giving us a cathartic yet ultimately hollow shot where the light suddenly turns on. The filmmakers wisely leave that thread loose — grief and feelings about a potential afterlife are a private matter, and they decline the opportunity to put a definitive stamp on it.
Are there missteps? Sure. I don’t know that the romantic angle between Kenny and the neighbor necessarily added anything of value to the film. And arguably, time devoted to that subplot took away from developing a deeper context to the relationship between Kenny and Rachel (really Rachel’s character could use some work in general — Connie Bowman does a great job playing her, especially in the moments when she’s forced to come to terms with the reality of her father’s impending death, but at times she feels like a stock uptight female caricature.)
But in the end, Nothing to Do succeeds in all the ways that matter — it creates a small-scale, intimate narrative that addresses the loss of a parent in an intelligent, emotional, and honest way.