Brotherly Love: Sophie Goodhart turns sibling rivalry into comedy with ‘My Blind Brother’
“I tend to write about things that I’m embarrassed of. Emotions that I find surprising or shameful.” Surprising and shameful, maybe—but also funny, at least in the hands of writer-director Sophie Goodhart, whose debut feature My Blind Brother is out Sept. 23 from Starz Digital Media.
The shameful emotion here is jealousy, specifically the jealousy felt by Goodhart when one of her sisters was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “My first reaction was obviously ‘This is terrible.’ I felt sad and shocked and stunned,” she recalls. Several months later came the “horrible, embarrassing realization” that she was also, on top of everything else, jealous of her sister. “She was always going to be this heroic figure,” Goodhart explains. “Whatever happened, she was always going to be battling adversity and being brave—which she is! And I knew that, in contrast, I was going to be the lazy good-for-nothing.”
Goodhart channeled the bare bones of her experience into the 2003 short film My Blind Brother, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Add in 13 years and another character she’d been noodling around with—Rose, a young woman coping with the guilt of her late boyfriend having been hit by a bus immediately after she dumped him for, among other things, having “weird nipples”—and you have a feature that blends dark comedy, family drama and romance in one unique package.
Nick Kroll stars in the feature version of My Blind Brother as Bill, a copy-shop manager who spends his free time alternatively A) watching TV, B) wallowing in self-pity and resentment, and/or C) helping Robbie (Adam Scott), the blind brother of the title, train for charity swims and marathons. Practically worshipped by many in his small town as a hero, Robbie nevertheless has his flaws, namely his abrasiveness and lack of concern for others. Filling out the trio is Rose (Jenny Slate), a self-described “shallow narcissist” who stumbles into a relationship with Robbie despite being in love with Bill instead.
Put simply, the attitude of My Blind Brother seems to be “everybody’s a little bit of an asshole.” Goodhart agrees, calling the film “a positive movie about dark things. We all have incredible flaws that we either try to deal with or not deal with.” At the same time, she doesn’t believe “that there are some people that are villains and some people that are heroes. Mostly, people are tryingto be good. But it’s very difficult.” Unsurprisingly, Goodhart counts Mike Leigh among her favorite filmmakers: “His ability to find humanity and comedy in a painful situations is something that I really admire, and I wanted to try to find in my film.”
That can be a tough line to walk, especially in terms of comedy: to hone in on your main characters’ worst impulses without falling into misanthropy or nihilism, while at the same time not overcorrecting and ending on a note of “everyone learns the error of their ways and becomes faultless, morally upright citizens.”
Make no mistake, there are some jokes in My Blind Brother that cause a “Wait…did I just laugh at that?” reaction, as in one scene where Bill opens a cabinet door for Robbie to smack his face into, only for Robbie to turn away at the last second. What’s more, My Blind Brother does have a moral compass in the form of Francie (Zoe Kazan) and GT (Charlie Hewson), Bill and Rose’s far more honorable, less irresponsible best friends. “Francie tells Rose what she should be doing, and GT tells Bill,” says Goodhart. “As an audience, we know that our heroes know what they should be doing. They just choose not to do it.”
So how do you create that balance? A comedic tone that’s dark, but not too dark. Characters who can be selfish, mean and shallow, but still must maintain the audience’s sympathy? It’s in the script, certainly, but it’s also in the edit; Goodhart credits My Blind Brother’s editor, Jennifer Lee (The Skeleton Twins), with helping keep the film on a tonal even keel. (I’ll credit her with one of the year’s best visual gags: A depressed Bill tells his family he’s going out to take his mind off things. Cut to Bill nursing a drink in a bar…where a funeral reception is being held.)
“What she did in every scene was look for the most truthful moment,” Goodhart says of Lee. “If you see anything play truthfully, even if it’s painful, we connect to it. The darkness becomes our own darkness. It’s painful, but not terrifying, because we know it.” That echoes Goodhart’s experience as a writer: “If we can admit to some of our darker ideas, then they become less powerful and you can work on them and see what they are. There’s definitely something cathartic about [it]!”
Having the right actors was also critical to the film’s success, which makes it even more amazing that Goodhart didn’t actually meet Kroll, Slate or Scott in person until the day before shooting began. “If I got into it with the wrong actors—you can see how easily something can come undone,” she says. But “I got so lucky with these actors. They’re really, all three of them, incredibly gifted. Nick can say or do a terrible thing, and there’s something about him, a Tom Hanks quality, where you just kind of want to give him a hug and forgive him. And the same with Jenny. Even during the moments in the film where you can see her making the situation worse and worse, she has such a lovable quality... It was so lucky for me that Nick and Jenny had such great chemistry, even before the film. They’re really, really close friends. They can read each other very easily. There’s a really beautiful emotional shorthand between them.” And Scott, too, brought an extra dimension to the character that Goodhart admits she relates to least of her central three: “I love the way Adam plays him, his fear of being vulnerable, of opening up the gates to all the horror underneath.”
“I’ve had tons of films almost happen” before My Blind Brother, Goodhart says. “At the beginning, [after being greenlit], I’d go to a pub and would buy drinks for everyone. ‘Yeah, I’m going to make a film!’ When I found out that I was going to be able to make this film, I thought, ‘Don’t tell a soul, because it’s not going to happen if you do.’” Her eventual success Goodhart ascribes to a mix of “luck and timing and talent… It was a condition of delusion and probably mild stupidity that I thought, ‘If I keep at it, it’ll happen.’ I’d wake up at two or three in the morning, many, many times, worrying about being a failure.”
Even with one success under her belt, Goodhart admits that making small, independent films is a “very, very difficult” business. Still, following positive reviews on the film festival circuit—including a world premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year, followed by stops at Tribeca and the Seattle International Film Festival—Goodhart (and this writer) hopes that My Blind Brother will be critically and financially successful enough that it won’t be 13 more years before she can make a second feature. There are two in particular she’s working on, one a comedy about infidelity, the other “a horror romantic comedy that I’m really excited about… You know when you go on a date with someone new, and you look at them and sort of say, ‘You could be a murderer?’”