Colleen has invited her estranged sister Eleanor to meet her in a diner in Chicago during the holiday season. They haven’t seen or talked to one another for a while. But Colleen, who has joined the 12-step Narcotics Anonymous program, is hoping to re-establish some kind of connection.
Making amends, however, is not so easy. Though there is a shared history between the sisters, there’s also a lot of resentment, which comes seeping to the surface as the conversation escalated into a rehashing of old persistent resentments and anger.
Directed by Dani Wieder from a script by Calamity West, this two-hander is equal parts bitingly funny, emotionally raw and deeply empathetic, with an ear and eye for the complexities of relationships between sisters, and how currents of affection and anger can flow between siblings, though it all comes from a deep well of love.
Getting to that love through the many layers of history and pain is the film’s journey, traced through a particularly knotty and contentious discussion. Like many two-handers, the writing is especially rich, where the dialogue works on both the conscious spoken level but is also rich with subtext.
That subtext is especially loaded here, imbued with a familial history and love, but also the conflicts and catastrophes of a relationship between an addict and those they hurt in the course of their addiction before they seek help. Before the relationship can truly move forward, the past must be acknowledged — including the collateral damage of pain that was caused.
Colleen clearly knows the minefield she is entering, and the film visually begins with an artful, deliberate sense of composure and a vaguely holiday feel, as if carefully neatening itself before a potential emotional storm. The opening sequence gestures towards holiday festivity, but there’s a melancholy in the score that hints there’s something uneasy in these visual snippets of Christmas cheer.
There are often quirky details included in the framing, and the occasional skewing of image, which often places the camera at unexpected angles, hints at the imbalance that exists between the sisters. This dynamic, almost fractured visual approach plays out in the dialogue, which roils and churns with biting honesty as Colleen and Eleanor reckon with one another for the first time since Colleen has sought help.
Actors Katherine Bourne Taylor and Mary Tilden nail both the sense of familiarity and connection between the sisters, from the way they bicker one second and then demonstrate humor and care the next, even despite their estrangement. Both Colleen and Eleanor clearly have a core of often painful familial history together, and even the rhythms and intonations of their speech have a kinship. But the sisters took different paths, and it will take extraordinary honesty and transparency to begin to repair the breach.
“Cool for Five Seconds” portrays how that process of repairing relationships and making amends is not so “feel good” as we’d like, and in fact can get quite ugly. Anger, rage and pain from the past can fester, and it takes more than one earnest conversation to address them. It will take consistency, openness and the courage to be wrong, vulnerable and accountable. But this rich snapshot of two sisters at a turning point shows those efforts have to begin somewhere, with a willingness to hang in there and listen to painful truths on both sides.