Depression lies. It whispers in our ears, penetrating our minds, until it resides in our hearts, turning all that’s good into ash. It tells us the worst we can imagine and removes all hope, convincing us that the world might be better off without us. A 2017 study from the CDC charting the leading causes of death in the United States puts suicide at the #2 spot for three age groups: 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. Additionally, the CDC discovered that during a 16-year period – 2001 through 2017 – the suicide rate increased 31%. This is why it’s incredibly important for those engaging in suicide ideation to recognize that they aren’t alone and for their friends and loved-ones to become more aware of the signs. In his first feature film, director Matt Walting tackles teen suicide through the Layla O’Shea-penned script Just Say Goodbye, releasing on multiple channels during Mental Health Awareness Month. Despite its many rough edges, there resides an honesty about the rippling impact of our choices that’s undeniably impactful. If the film changes even one mind or makes one person more aware, then the intent of Just Say Goodbye will be a success.
Best friends Sarah (Katerina Eichenberger) and Jesse (Max MacKenzie) are counting down the days until the end of the school year. For Sarah, summer vacation brings a trip with her dad through New York state. For Jesse, it simultaneously brings his birthday and the day he plans to take his life. When Jesse tells Sarah about his plan, her world is forcefully shaken as the ticking of the days turns from joyous anticipation into tortuous inevitability.
Valiantly, Just Say Goodbye doesn’t mince its words. It directly and confrontationally explores why someone might want to kill themselves and the impact that choice has on others. It does this in a myriad of ways while avoiding becoming trite. Jesse was six when he found his mother after she committed suicide. In the 10 years since, he’s watched his father become an abusive drunk and has been the victim of school-based bullying nearly every day at school. It’s a trifecta of horrors, any one of which offers a reasonable jumping off point for psychological trauma. Strangely, Goodbye doesn’t attempt to explore the familial element, but that may have been one step too much given all that the film does present. For her part, O’Shea’s script presents Jesse as not a victim, but as someone who sees the choice as freeing, as a moment of control in a life that’s endlessly spiraling independent of his wants or desires. All of this the audience feels through MacKenzie’s performance. You can see the discomfort in Jesse’s skin up until the moment he makes his decision known to Sarah, and how a comfortable calm overtakes him once he tells her: MacKenzie’s physicality perfectly syncing with the character’s inner turmoil. Likewise, Eichnberger is fantastic as Sarah. As the audience’s surrogate, we observe her struggle with being a good friend that keeps his secret, while also searching for any way to convince him to change his mind. Her approaches range from reasonable to desperate, yet none seem irrational or unconvincing. In many ways, each new approach compels the audiences to project themselves onto the character, pushing the audience to ponder what they would do in the same situation. Once more, the success is attributed to clever ideas in the script and a strong performance. Just Say Goodbye’s greatest strength is its sincerity.
That said, sincerity means little when the artist distracts from the art. On more than one occasion technological issues within the direction present themselves in such a manner as to remove the audience from the reality of the narrative. In an early sequence, Jesse and Sarah chat while riding their bikes and it’s obvious that the audio is from a different piece of coverage, a suspicion confirmed when the angle changes. Later, the camera visibly wobbles, refusing to hold still in a manner clearly not intentional as the camera doesn’t move once the angle changes only to wobble immediately when it switches back. There are several moments throughout Goodbye which undercut the strength of other well-composed sequences, like the climax, which are utterly gut-wrenching due to the wonderfully executed scene-work from the cast, cinematography, and performances. Similarly, the script seems to function as a tool of two masters: the story and the message. There are conversations between Jesse and Sarah which seem out of place, given their 10-year history, and only seem to occur because the audience needs to hear the information. A sequence in which Jesse is bullied outside of school doesn’t make much sense when pondered for much time, yet the significance to the message of the film is undeniably significant. There are a few narrative bombs inserted into the script which are neither necessary for the larger plot of Goodbye nor as impactful as designed and are perhaps attempting to incite additional tension in a film which already placed its characters on a ticking deadline. That said, the confrontation between Jesse and his school bully is incredibly satisfying and will no doubt resonate with anyone who experienced anything like Jesse has. For even as technical issues appear or the script complicates matters unnecessarily, when the film keeps to its core, it becomes the most provoking.
Depression lies. What doesn’t are the actions we take to engage the people around us. Driven by what this reviewer assumes is a deeply personal inspiration by writer O’Shea and constructed by the then 16-year-old director using funds from a GoFundMe campaign, Just Say Goodbye is a startling achievement. With brutal honesty it presents both sides of suicidal ideation, the person contemplating and the person it most impacts, without once condescending. Just Say Goodbye may not be perfect, but its emotional wallop is unquestionable. Instead of judging, it asks the audience what they would do in the shoes of Jesse and Sarah. Considering the statistics, it’s a question worth ruminating on.
If you or someone you know may be showing signs of depression or other mental illness, know that there are tools available to you. Begin by going to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website, calling 800-950-NAMI, or emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Available on Amazon, DVD, and VOD May 10th, 2019. For more details, head to the Just Say Goodbye official website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.