From outré queer director and musical theatre genius, John Cameron Mitchell comes a revelatory piece of understated suburban melodrama exploring the complex nature of grief when complicated by intricate familial and social class dynamics.

Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are a very well-heeled professional couple living in a layer cake home in the suburbs of greater New York. Their lives could be considered an aspirational dream except for the fact that due to a sudden and tragic accident, their young son Danny was killed when he was hit by a car chasing the family dog across the road.

Becca, once an antiquities dealer at Sotheby’s, gave up her prestige position to be a stay at home mother and is feeling particularly lost in the mire of grief as she has yet to find an outlet that adequately expresses her loss and fury. Feeling trapped by her suburban existence she is locked in the house which acts as a memory box for Danny.

Conversely Howie still retains a job and some semblance of a life balance, but cannot communicate with the one person he needs to most, Becca.

Howie and Becca try a grief support group which enrages her as she sees it being filled by “religious types and wallowers” — the latter characterised by Gabby (Sandra Oh), who with her resentment filled husband, has been attending sessions for eight years. Becca’s palpable disgust is barely disguised and after insisting on an early exit from the group, she refuses to ever return.

Becca’s situation is further complicated when her seemingly feckless sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) reveals that she is pregnant after Becca bails her out of lock up for a bar fight. Izzy and their mother Nat (Dianne Weist) are distinctly of a lower class to where Becca currently resides, and the family disconnect between them is palpable. Added to the mix is the implication that Nat is an alcoholic and that she was a poor parent. This is somewhat reinforced when it is revealed that there was a third sibling, Arthur, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty some eleven years earlier.

As Becca and Howie each try to find a space for their grief they find themselves on divergent paths. A chance sighting of Jason (Miles Teller), the young man who accidentally killed Danny leads Becca to strike up a melancholy relationship with the guilt ridden teen. A quiet and intelligent young man, Jason is also a talented graphic artist who is writing a comic called ‘Rabbit Hole’ about a young man lost in infinite parallel universes.

The film revolves around the metaphor of the rabbit hole — how the characters are in danger of spiralling into their own grief, isolation and potentially destructive behaviours. So too the notion of parallel universes, the space of the constant ‘what if’ and what could, or should have been if one small decision had been made that could have averted the tragedy of Danny’s death.

Howie finds himself attending grief counselling without Becca, where he finds himself becoming attracted to the newly single Gabby as she offers him a sense of reckless abandonment. She is also clearly sexually available to him. Something that Becca has not been since the death of their son.

Ultimately the film boils down to the couple finding a way to move into the future together. It’s also about Becca finding a space where she can reconcile her own complex familial relationships and forgive Nat and Izzy their obvious differences.

As a set piece, the film belongs almost entirely to Nicole Kidman whose central performance garnered her an Oscar nomination in 2011. Aaron Eckhart is competent and touching in his role as the equally scarred Howie, but he’s a supporting player. Both Dianne Wiest and Miles Teller are excellent. The former showing her veteran skills and the latter, just at the beginning of his career, showcasing what an immense talent he will become.

Rabbit Hole is based on a play and adapted screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco and the melancholy soundtrack is provided by Anton Sanko, probably best known for his work on Philadelphia.

Finally, it is Mitchell’s surprisingly subtle and deft directional touch that elevates Rabbit Hole from a film which could easily have fallen into the trap of being a one-note domestic melodrama. Considering his resumé includes Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and the extremely controversial Shortbus (2006), Mitchell was moved by a fine drawn nuance that was henceforth lacking in his work and made Rabbit Hole a universally themed work about how people must learn to process their grief, guilt, and anger to reach a point where they know what they will do with the next day of their lives — which will keep happening regardless of their suffering in the present.

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire, (based on the play Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire)