In JUST SAY GOODBYE we meet Jesse (Max McKenzie) as a six-year-old (played by Joseph Colangelo) who comes home from school to discover that his mother Olivia (Olivia Nossiff) has overdosed on sleeping pills. Jump ten years to the adolescent about to turn sixteen, living in an untenable situation with his alcoholic father who, since the mother’s death, has been paralysed both figuratively (by grief) and literally (by an accident that has left disabled). Jesse’s a smart, sensitive, sassy-mouthed kid who’s an easy target for the school bully, Chase (Jesse Walters). The only bright light in his life is his best friend Sarah (Katerina Eichenberger) who is understandably infuriated and devastated when Jesse announces that he’s had enough and is planning to end his life at midnight on his birthday.
This is a modest, low budget affair for first time director, Matt Walting and first-time screenwriter Layla O’Shea and, for the most part, they navigate the dangerous territory of this story with a refreshing combination of sensitive insight and wit. McKenzie and Eichenberger are terrific together. There’s a palpable authenticity to their friendship that helps to raise the stakes for both of them when the enormity of Jesse’s plan is revealed. Less effective is the overwrought, mostly one-note character of Rick, Jesse’s seriously depressed father. Whilst we get to know Jesse and Sarah really well in the course of the film, Rick’s development as a character is minimal which feels like a missed opportunity to explore the interior world of the father who is just as vulnerable as the son and on just as self-destructive a path.
As the story progresses, though, the handling of the suicide issue gets a bit wobbly and strays into some dicey areas where I, for one, wanted to see someone take some real responsibility for this kid in serious pain for whom the future seems to have only one deadly possibility. It’s where these stories often fall down, in their determination to keep the issue within the circle of characters in their well- meaning but uninformed ways of dealing with their friend or sibling or child, rather than allowing the characters to act in the way a responsible person might out here in the real world. It’s different if it’s a spy story or a superhero story or a love story or just about any other genre… but here, the risks of allowing the responsibility to the drama of the narrative to supersede the responsibility to the potentially vulnerable person in the audience feel a bit dodgy.
It would be a spoiler to go much further in examining where this film ends up, suffice to say that the subtlety and strength of the character relationships that work so well for the first two thirds of the film seem to fall away in the last act and despite a nice little twist that was unexpected for the impact it has on the story, the final scenes lean more to the cliché than to the profound and as good as the actors are in the bulk of the film, they struggle to maintain the same quality of work through to then end. And the last line in the film really made me wince.