A moment at the beginning of Sarah T Schwab’s adaptation of Life After You tells you all you need to know about the central mother-son relationship. Linda (co-writer Florencia Lozano) finds Danny (Jake Ryan Lozano) smoking outside after having just cleaned the mess he and a friend left in the living room the night before. She takes a shot at the friend’s mother, he smiles. She tells him that she’s glad they tell each other everything and only hears his agreement while looking off into the distance. We conversely see it. More a placation than anything else, Danny is saying what he knows Linda wants to hear. Because what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her—until, of course, it does.
The film is based on Linda Lajterman’s book Life After You: What Your Death From Drugs Leaves Behind. As we eventually learn, writing this candid account depicting the fallout of her own son’s accidental overdose from fentanyl-laced heroin was her way to cope with the grief, uncertainty, and guilt she bore. It’s only human nature to wonder what it was you could have done to prevent tragedies, despite reality always proving the answer is: nothing. Hindsight is a powerful drug in its own right, however, and you’re forced to think you could have pushed them onto a clearer path more than you did or asked them a different question you didn’t know to ask. Lajterman believed that telling her truth could save someone else from living it too.
And I’m sure it has. Some parents need that extra push to realize their own kids aren’t immune to stress, depression, anxiety, peer pressure, or whatever else might open the door to controlled substances. Some kids need to know they mean more to those around them than they may think at their lowest moment. This is a suburban middle-class family that skews towards the comfortable end of the spectrum with Linda working as a registered nurse and Tito (Gary Perez) owning a trophy engraving business. Their eldest son Michael (Erick Betancourt) was a star high school football player who now works there with him, their daughter Anna (Domenica Feraud) was an over-achieving student who’s made a success of herself post-college, and nineteen-year-old Danny skips class to play videogames.
Who is to blame? Could Linda and Tito have failed Danny despite excelling with their other two children? Does that then put it all on the victim’s shoulders? How about the friend who put him onto the drug or the supplier who gave it to them? What about the neighbors and classmates finding that every door is open to them while he can barely muster the energy to get out of bed? Are they rubbing it in his face? What about Sally (Kathryn Erbe) inviting Linda over to her son’s graduation party before he leaves for Penn State while Danny watches from the window in a ratty hoodie he refuses to wash? Is she gloating? What about the friends who didn’t help him? Or didn’t help him enough?
It’s easier to ask the questions and search for answers than to accept this tragedy was a result of all of them and none of them at the same time. It just was. And that’s what Schwab and company strive to achieve by putting us into the Lajterman house as tensions mount, tempers flare, and a once buoyant atmosphere is destroyed to reveal nothing but silence and seething rage. The best moments are therefore those when the family hits their limits and confronts each other with the origin of their own anger—lashing out to place blame where they can so as not to acknowledge the portion that they carry themselves. It’s emotionally devastating to watch Anna deny her mother’s grieving process and Tito confront Linda’s escalating self-isolation.
Where those instances are irrefutable, however, there are also those that had me thinking Schwab and Lozano maybe tried to do too much with their adaptation. That’s not me saying these incidents didn’t happen to the real Lajterman or that they aren’t in the book—they probably did and are, in some respect. Life After You being just shy of ninety minutes unfortunately doesn’t leave much time for all those things to find the necessary room for maximum impact. The family’s mission to hold someone accountable is commendable and relatable, but actually having its potential quickly manifest in the background almost cheapens its purpose. Tito’s quest to find the watch Danny pawned fares much better with continued action and an effective payoff (courtesy of the late Craig ‘muMs’ Grant).
The balance between authenticity and message is a tough one to traverse, though. How far do you go with the latter so as not to hamstring the former? It’s a tightrope walk I ultimately think Schwab and Lozano handle more often than not. For every scene that feels redundant or reductive there are two that are crucial to understanding the pain being endured. The little things go a long way, whether Linda calmly approaching Danny’s girlfriend for answers or Tito getting heated with his son’s friends volunteering their own. That’s what we can relate to—not single-handedly shutting down a fentanyl ring, either as reality or hallucination. That stuff surely works much better on the page when Lajterman can explain her internal absorption of it all.
By forgiving that overtly convenient plot thread, however, we can better appreciate the silent moments that say so much more with so much less. I loved a scene where Linda walks into Sally’s home and the two know exactly what the other is thinking because of the well of shame that has suddenly appeared between them. Another sees Michael’s wife (Kelley Rae O’Donnell)—weeks away from giving birth—contending with the unfortunate reality that this moment that should be so happy no longer can. And my favorite is anytime Lozano and Perez hit maximum frustration to let each other know what they’re feeling to finally remember that they aren’t alone. Budgetary constraints may hinder a few aspects of the whole, but those two performances (especially together) are exempt.
Life After You is playing at the Buffalo International Film Festival.