The World Without You
It’s the summer of 2006, a year after the death of Leo Frankel, a journalist killed on assignment in Iraq, and his family gathers at their summer home in the Berkshires for a memorial. Their disparate personalities, along with the overwhelming grief, provide the catalyst for old hurts and dark secrets to emerge that tear the fragile threads holding the family together.
The Frankels are natives of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, secularly Jewish, wealthy, intellectual and fiercely liberal. Marilyn, the mother, is an accomplished physician and activist. David, the father, traded the predestined paths of law, medicine, or finance for teaching high school English in the Bronx for 35 years. They are at the family cabin in the Berkshires, waiting for their children to arrive for the July 4th holiday and the family memorial service to mark a year since their son Leo’s death.
En route are daughters Clarissa, (39), the over-achiever, all world psychiatrist for the needy, living in Brooklyn, with her husband Nathan, a standout professor of physics at Columbia, Lily (38), the smartass law student who clerked for a Supreme Court judge right out of Yale and then took over a behemoth NGO, and Noelle, (36) coming from Israel with her family. Also on her way is Leo’s widow, Thisbe (34), African-American (and their son Calder, 4), flying in from Berkeley where she’s a doctoral candidate in anthropology.
On the first night, Marilyn drops a bomb when she announces at the dinner table, “I’m leaving Daddy.” For the past year she has dedicated herself to writing op-ed articles against the war to ensure that Leo’s story remains in the public’s consciousness - as it is always foremost in her own. She’s convinced that her grief is a cloud from which she will never emerge and her husband David, who has moved on from his mourning, is no comfort. Relentless, she has come to represent grieving mothers everywhere.
Their daughters are all caught up in their own personal dramas. Clarissa, desperately wants to conceive, an obsession now threatening her own marriage. Lily and Noelle never got along and Leo’s death only adds fuel to that fire. Noelle, having moved to Israel and converted to Orthodox Judaism, horrifies Lily and the rest of her liberal family, announcing that she voted for Bush twice. Thisbe is also harboring a secret of her own. Before Leo’s death she had asked for a separation and over the past year she has fallen in love with a fellow student and is planning to move in with him.
The next day, Marilyn is planning to meet a Turkish woman who is flying to Boston to give her rumored footage of Leo’s days in captivity in exchange for payment. Noelle’s husband Amram has been out of work for a while now, and has regressed into becoming just another responsibility, along with their 3 young sons, for Noelle. Also, Leo came to see her in Jerusalem days before his capture. Noelle makes Amram swear to keep the visit a secret from the rest of the family. A fight ensues after a failed attempt at having sex, and Amram storms out of the house and drives away.
David senses that something about his deceased son is a lie. He distrusts Marilyn’s constant raising up Leo as some successful foreign correspondent when he was still spinning his wheels professionally, he suspects that Noelle knows more about Leo’s death than she is letting on, and most of all, he is finally auditing his own role in creating a son who would abandon his wife and child the way Leo clearly did near the end of his life. All this culminates at the second family dinner where he finally blows his top, pleading with Marilyn to give up the ghost, stop the lying about Leo and finally admit who their son was—not some hero, but a reckless man who got himself killed irresponsibly when he should have been home raising his son.
Marilyn meets the Turkish woman and the footage ends up not being much more than 20 minutes of Leo sleeping in a cell. But it’s something, anything, of her son. When she gets home and plugs in the thumbnail, in place of the video she was shown at the meeting, there’s a voice message from the woman apologizing and explaining that she couldn’t give that footage out or she’d be hunted and killed. In the message, she assures Marilyn that it’s all there is of her son and hopes it will give her the peace she seeks. Alone in front of her computer, Marilyn finally begins to see what she’s been doing for the last year of her life: holding on to the pain so she could hold on to her son.
The next day, after the memorial for Leo, Amram returns with David’s mother, and the kids’ grandmother, Gretchen. Ninety and fully functional, she is a hardline, old money Republican tank disguised in jewels and manners. Amram told her what was going on with David and Marilyn’s divorce, and she insisted she be brought up to the cabin to deal with it. Noelle reams Amram for his absence and his meddling, and the fight turns into a rough tennis match between the two. Noelle was an exceptional player in high school; Amram has been and always will be an overweight non-athlete. The obvious result is Amram on his back after having been plugged in the eye with a forehand winner.
Inside, they attend to Amram and turn on Noelle, once and for all. And in response, she discloses what she knows about Leo. He came to visit her—and her alone— before he was taken, that he regretted his life to that point, that he wanted her to tell Thisbe he did in fact love her and missed her, and then, he walked off into the dark. The rest of the pomp and circumstance around the death and the memorial at the cabin was all bullshit and nothing he would have wanted. The girls are stunned, Marilyn drained and David at a loss.
Gretchen then speaks her own unique brand of out-dated wisdom which leaves the room even sadder and less healed than before. And in the wake of her words, Marilyn realizes finally what Thisbe has been hiding and tells her as much. Then Marilyn tells Thisbe it’s okay; they know she’s moved on and it’s okay. And she goes outside to be alone while the rest of them eat.
Next day, the girls make their amends with each other, Noelle and Amram realize they need each other even if theirs is an imperfect union, and Thisbe says goodbye for what will probably be a long while.
Once they drive off, Marilyn tells David about the Turkish woman and the video and the realization she made around her compulsiveness and Leo’s death. She feels him out about giving it another shot. He’s hurt by the cavalier nature of her decision making, but, he loves her and tells her they’ll just have to go back to the city together and see what happens. Then he brings their omelets over to the counter where they sit and eat side-by-side.