“My aunt was killed by a drunk driver,” explained writer/director Blake Robbins (Sons of Anarchy, Oz, The Office) at the beginning of the Q & A following the world premiere of his writing and directing feature film debut The Sublime and Beautiful at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival.
Just mentioning his aunt’s death forced him to take pause, and it took him a few seconds to compose himself before he could continue. Clearly, the subject material explored in The Sublime and Beautiful is quite personal to Robbins, a script he spent seven years developing, and the raw emotion he drew from his personal experience when exploring the many layers of grief is captured masterfully in this thought provoking and incredibly powerful film.
The film opens with a snapshot of a seemingly happy family: David Conrad (Blake Robbins) is a college professor raising three children with his wife Kelly (Laura Kirk) in a small Kansas town. Yet David is not the honorable father and husband he first appears to be. After lying to his wife that he can’t make his parents’ annual family Christmas party due to work, David secretly makes a rendezvous with his mistress, a student from the college.
This is a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life, because if he had stayed with his wife and children, the circumstances of that night may have turned out quite differently. Unfortunately, however, for David and Kelly, tragedy strikes.
David arrives at the hospital to discover the horror that his family was hit by a drunk driver. His wife survived, but all three of their children were killed – burned to death as the car ignited. Talk about misery. Being a father of three children myself, the thought is unimaginable.
In the aftermath of the accident, grief sets in, yet David and Kelly exhibit their emotional responses differently. Kelly is pissed, angry at everything and everyone, and she’s not shy to vocalize it: “Woman with dead kids is leaving,” she yells at a crowd of friends and family because she can’t take being hugged and pitied anymore. David, on the other hand, becomes withdrawn, turns to drinking, and stops talking to his wife almost entirely. Their breakdown in communication puts additional strain on an already strained marriage, and as David’s depression turns to rage and retribution, their marriage seems all but lost.
After the film, writer/director Blake Robbins, along with some of the cast and crew took the stage for a Q & A, and Robbins was quick to acknowledge that The Sublime and Beautiful is not a film for everybody because it’s dealing with such extremely heavy emotional territory, but his primary aim was always to make a film that honors anyone who has suffered from profound and unrelenting grief. Grief is a powerful and confusing thing, with waves of depression, rage, regret, and guilt all crashing in, and often all at once.
If honest grief, in all its complexity, is what Blake Robbins was trying to capture in his film, he did a masterful job.