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Margaret Cho in Touching Midlife Dramedy

Margaret Cho in Touching Midlife Dramedy

As Emma (Margaret Cho) grieves her recently deceased dog, her erstwhile coworker Kayla (Missi Pyle) tries to extend a bit of comfort. “My grandma used to say that, once they know they’re yours, they’ll always be with you,” she says. “Even when they’re gone, they’ll find a way to let you know they’re still there.”

It’s the sort of well-meaning, well-worn sentiment that anyone who’s suffered such a tragedy has certainly heard before, and that, depending on the context, might read as trite bullshit or a profound insight. All That We Love takes it as its north star, and turns it into the latter. What could sound on paper like a saccharine sobfest becomes a gentle meditation on love in all its forms, and the grooves it leaves behind even after the objects of our affection have gone.

All That We Love

The Bottom Line

A gentle meditation on love and loss.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Cast: Margaret Cho, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Kenneth Choi, Alice Lee, Atsuko Okatsuka, Missi Pyle, Devon Bostick
Director: Yen Tan
Screenwriters: Yen Tan, Clay Liford

1 hour 30 minutes

Fair warning, though: You will cry during this one, especially if you have pets.

The very first scene has Emma singing softly to her dog Tanner, her voice growing increasingly choked as he draws his last breaths in the comfort of her lap. But while Tanner’s departure is the most acute loss in her life, it’s not the only one she’s dealing with. Her daughter, Maggie (Alice Lee), is preparing to follow a boyfriend (Devon Bostick) to Australia for five weeks — actually, make that five months — leaving Emma with an empty nest. Meanwhile, Emma’s ex-husband, Andy (Kenneth Choi), has unexpectedly re-entered her life after years of estrangement, forcing her to confront anew the complicated feelings he left behind when he exited the first time.

While that opening scene is the last we see of Tanner in life, director Yen Tan has a knack for making his absence feel like its own kind of presence. Sometimes, he makes a point of calling attention to who’s not in the frame: a shot of an empty dog bed or a full dog bowl serve as visual reminders of the creature who’s no longer around to curl up for a nap or scarf down kibble. At others, he floods the frame with Tanner’s warmth. All That We Love is too firmly grounded in realism to give Tanner a voiceover, or to show him waiting patiently on some rainbow bridge. But when Emma is backlit by a magic-hour glow almost too golden to seem real, we nevertheless get the sense that we might be glimpsing her from Tanner’s point of view, shrouded in the aura of his love.

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Tan’s visual sense is complemented by a script laced with details so quirky yet ordinary that they feel lifted straight from someone’s life. (In fact, Tan, who cowrote the film with Clay Liford, has said he was inspired by the death of his own dog, also named Tanner.) Some are painfully sad: Emma recounts how, after Andy left, a very young Maggie became fixated on a shampoo ad, falsely convinced that he was the actor in it. “She got really guarded after that. Stuff like that made it really hard not to hate you,” she tells him now.

But Tan’s also got a sense for tragicomic beats, or moments of levity within sorrow. When the dog Emma’s impulsively taken in makes a mess, she snaps at Kayla for suggesting that her tone might be freaking him out: “Are you suggesting that my voice is causing him to shit?” she screeches.

Even so, All That We Love struggles a bit to make the characters around Emma feel as fully realized as she does. Emma’s former sister-in-law Raven gets a splashy introduction — she’s a mukbang YouTuber played by the distinctively stylish comedian Atsuko Okatsuka, and Emma watches a video of her snorting a noodle up her nose — but then fades into the background so thoroughly that by the time she reappears, we’ve half forgotten she existed. And while we don’t need all the minute details of, say, Maggie’s career path as a budding illustrator, or the marriage between Emma’s best friend Stan (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his late husband, the film offers so few that the characters’ lives outside of Emma barely seem to exist at all.

What All That We Love does have a grasp on, though, is the familiarity these people have with each other. Their intimacy is reflected in how quickly Emma and Andy fall back into their old attraction and then their old arguments. Or in how casually Maggie rolls her eyes at a cold spell between Emma and Stan, having seen her mom and godfather bicker a million times before. This time, however, the argument takes a turn when Maggie realizes they’re fighting over Emma’s willingness to reconnect with Andy. “He abandoned us, and we moved on. I got over it,” she yells at her mother. But the intensity of Maggie’s voice gives up the game. Those feelings of betrayal and hurt are inside her still, and probably always will be. For better and for worse, they’re simply a part of her.

It’s been almost four years since I lost my own Tanner, a little tuxedo-suited cat named Roger, and I, too, have recovered for the most part: I don’t bawl when I come across one of his old toys, I don’t fall asleep replaying our last minutes together, I don’t even look at his photos as much as I used to. But every once in a while, the right combination of circumstances unlocks that old grief, sending it shooting right back up to the surface again. The poignant and lovely All We Love was one of those circumstances.

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