By Fergus Henderson. “Calvin Lewis, you have a lot of living to do.” It’s true. Calvin (Asa Butterfield) is a terminal hypochondriac college drop-out who works with his dad lugging bags onto airplanes. He keeps a ‘symptom journal’ of his every imagined malady and wastes his family’s dwindling money on taking as many tests as possible to find diseases he doesn’t have. His primary focus is on how likely he is to die, and how soon that might be. It will take meeting Skye (Maisie Williams) at a cancer support group, something his doctor hopes will give him perspective, for him to realise the value of living.
Skye, who does actually have cancer, latches onto Calvin immediately. It’s all down in her ‘to-die list’: one item compels her to help a loser like Calvin out. Luckily, mercifully, the film does not work to make these two late-teen weirdos a couple. It instead makes good on the promise signalled by Skye’s manic pixie outfit and sets about using Skye’s character to unburden Calvin of his chronic awkwardness.
Or so it would initially seem. For its first half Departures breezes along in a series of happy montages in which Skye ticks off some of the quirkier items on her list (acting Hamlet in the park, shoplifting, spraypainting) whilst setting an energetic example for Calvin, rebuilding his confidence so that he can ask out his crush, colleague Izzy (Nina Dobrev).
If this all sounds a little by-the-books, it is. Calvin, as portrayed by Asa, is a sweet and awkward kid, but the film makes its female characters talk to him in that witty way that certain Juno-indebted films seem to imagine women talk to shy boys, no matter how damp and dull a squib they may be. You begin to worry that the film is simply going to use Skye’s character, played with exceptional vigour and warmth by Williams, in this way for the whole film.
After a little too long in this manner, all emotionally suggestive folk-lite music and even lighter humour, the film does find its feet and refocuses itself on the severity of Skye’s condition, the narrative taking a step back and foregrounding her over Calvin. Characters become more fully fleshed out. The balance of humour and drama is finessed. It begins to make more sense, and becomes a much better film.
Any conflicts prior to this (Skye’s emotionally distant best friend, Calvin becoming stuck in a lie about his fake cancer with Izzy) feel undercooked. They give the impression of being script contrivances needed to push the story to its eventual tipping point that might have looked good on page but are overshadowed by the heaviness of the film’s premise. You’re basically waiting for the film to feel as if it has truly started.
When it does, everything falls into place. Calvin’s troubled past and his family history are explored. The profound journey that Skye is going on is given proper attention (as are Maisie Williams’ acting chops). Ken Jeong, always a welcome and effortlessly funny presence, makes a few brief cameos as a cop, Officer Al, with an intense emotional investment in Calvin and Skye. I was shocked to find myself genuinely moved by the film’s end, even despite the fundamentally schlocky approach the film takes throughout.
As understandable as it must have seemed, keeping the more serious moments for the film’s final third, if the film could have proceeded from the start within that register and with a more raw tone, it might have been a more satisfying experience. It is let down by an insistence on fast-talking, gentle comedy that will make its intended teen audience smile more than laugh. If it had set its sights on the audience’s hearts right from the off it could have landed on a more resonant note. As it is, Departures is a sweet film. What it lacks in its formulaic filmmaking it makes up for with its strong performances. It just doesn’t have a strong enough voice.
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