The kids aren't alright

Todd Solondz provokes (again) with Life During Wartime

Sisters Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Helen (Ally Sheedy) are part of Life During Wartime's unhappy family

FILM The Kids Are Alright isn't the only film this summer that subtly skewers the suburban upper-middle class by following a seemingly well-adjusted family as they're thrown into crisis when a shadowy father figure attempts to enter their orbit. Only in the case of Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, instead of a sperm donor, Dad is a convicted child molester.

A quasi-sequel to 1998's Happiness, Life picks up 10 years later to survey the still-damaged Jordan sisters. After discovering that her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is still making sexually harassing phone calls, mousy Joy (squeaky-voiced British actress Shirley Henderson) flees to Florida, where her older sister Trish (Allison Janney) has attempted to start a new life for herself and her children. Oldest Billy (Chris Marquette) is now a bitter college student, and youngest son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) still doesn't know the horrible truth about his father Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who has just been released from prison. Third sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), has had success in Hollywood, but still feels victimized by her family.

Despite the entirely new cast, happiness remains just as elusive as before. Pleasure, when it can be found, is fleeting. Characters' awkward conversations with each other inevitably sputter and stall, and even the best intentions are no measure against disaster. Solondz may be a scathing observer, but he is not above being sympathetic when its called for. Neither does he gloss over the serious questions — what are the limits of forgiveness? When is forgetting necessary? — Life grabbles with, something that was quite clear when I talked with the affable Solondz in his San Francisco hotel room.

SFBG Why did you decide to return to these characters?

Todd Solondz When I finished Happiness, I never imagined I would. But it just shows that my imagination wasn't so fertile, because about 10 years later I wrote the first scene of Life During Wartime and I liked what I had written. Also, knowing that I could recast the movie freed me up to have fun and get at things I hadn't gotten before in quite the same way.

SFBG Diverse casting is another hallmark of yours, and you always get such strong performances from your actors. Do you have specific people in mind once you've written the script?

TS I like to shake it up and try out different people. For this film, I knew I wanted Ally Sheedy but I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get her. Almost everybody has read everything for my movies because I don't have much in the way of rehearsal. Usually the audition is the rehearsal since we usually can't afford anything more.

SFBG Your films elicit this queasy response. The audience's laughter always seems nervous. How do you find a balance between humor and sadness?

TS It's a moral challenge. As an audience member, you're highly attuned to the laughter you like and the laughter you don't like, and it becomes a moral decision — laughing or not laughing. My movies are comedies, but terribly sad comedies.

SFBG Life During Wartime interrogates the possibility of "forgiving and forgetting." Yet you're always careful not to condemn your characters too harshly, no matter how antisocial or appalling their behavior.

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