Everything you need to know about Judith (Ally Maki) and Steve’s (Luke Roberts) marriage arrives during their first “share” at the summer retreat where they’ve brought their daughters (Nyha Huang Breitkreuz’s Stephanie and Remy Marthaller’s Emmy) to play while repairing whatever has broken between them. After Steve passes the buck by saying she wanted them to come, Judith attempts to honestly organize her thoughts around her mother’s recent passing. Before she can finish, however, he forcefully interjects: “Five months ago.
What a simple yet telling interaction––one writer-director Meredith Hama-Brown must be intimately familiar with to so poignantly and effortlessly depict. Is that not recent enough? Is there a guidebook to how long you’re allowed to mourn? Or how long you’re expected to wait for sex without ever truly seeming engaged enough to help guide your spouse through the emotional minefield making her numb? The sheer fact they’re here is a testament to Judith admitting something was wrong. And Steve can’t even meet her halfway.
That authenticity captivates. Seagrass understands that these couples’ retreats aren’t for everyone and that some marriages aren’t either. Because rather than shed light on what might bring these two back together, the conversations and events onscreen force us to ask why they ever got together in the first place. To hear them talk is to listen to milestones. To hear them “fight” for connection is to listen to how they’ve made their lives a checklist and not an adventure. It’s almost as if Steve and Judith have never said anything real to each other. Ever.
They didn’t know. How could they? Steve came from money and his inability to take therapy seriously or dare to be vulnerable shows his family was probably repressed as well. Judith came from poverty––immigrant parents who endured America’s internment camps during WWII with many siblings to raise. Both instances driven by duty. Provide before love. Go through the motions, make sure your kids survive, and pretend it was worth it, regardless of whether your own happiness factored in.
It’s difficult not to have their eyes finally opened when constantly comparing themselves to Pat (Chris Pang) and Carol (Sarah Gadon). Yes, these two have their problems (they’re here, after all), but they’ve worked through them. They’ve been honest. They’ve strengthened their love. Rather than take that example to heart for themselves, however, Judith and Steve only find jealousy. She yearns for their freedom without kids. He craves their effortless, charismatic confidence.
And Hama-Brown allows these desires to run their course without melodrama. She understands “emasculation” isn’t necessarily externally drawn. Pat doesn’t have to take Judith into his arms or punch Steve out. All he must do is exist for them to wish he would. These stories too often find a need to create a villain because their goal is a happily ever after. But what about those instances where there are none? What about the reality that Judith and Steve are their own worst enemies for not recognizing the truth: that they’re unwilling to put in the work.
Project that down to the children too to see a similar example of gaslighting and frustration. Stephanie is selfish too. She wants to have fun and being stuck with Emmy hinders that result. So she pushes her away. She loses herself to the culture of conformity (a theme that runs deep throughout both on socio-economic scales and racial ones with both main couples being marriages between Japanese and white spouses). Where is their respective notions of duty born? From expectation or love?
An intriguing, over-arching unease gives the whole some extra atmosphere (the cave near where they’re staying is said to house ghosts and bring back to life anyone you think about while inside) as things rapidly devolve towards a point of no return. But it’s also an education. Because just as Stephanie realizes the person that matters most is the one who needs her and not the one who uses her, Judith and Steve awaken to the reality that their struggles aren’t with each other. They’re the obstacles stopping their internal struggles from finding closure.
Seagrass premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.