How do we navigate grief?
In the wake of his mother's death, Dean's answer is obvious: He draws. It's what he does no matter what is happening in his life, but now it seems even more important.
Dean's illustrations have always been a bit, um, off-kilter. But they're quirky enough and good enough that he's actually managed to publish a book of these odd line doodles. His simple drawings split the difference between absurd and disturbed, profound and profane. "Ask me about my face," says the caption below one stick-figure drawing whose head has no face. "Actual A hole," says another, with an arrow pointing to the triangular space outlined by that letter's lines.
But these days, Dean's drawings are more macabre. Someone trying to kick a football held by a friend kicks the holder's head off instead. A grim reaper presides over a guillotine with a head about to fall into perfectly aligned bowling pins. Row after row after row of identical skulls, all with descriptive labels below them: "Slut." "Inventor." "Writer." "You."
There's whimsy here, to be sure. But it's definitely dark.
Dean insists to his engineer father, Robert, that he's doing fine. Dad, who's working through his own grief with a therapist and self-help books, isn't convinced. "Even when you're here, you're not here," Robert observes. "I'm hoping you're alive," he tells Dean in a voicemail message.
Dean erases that message. Others, in contrast, he listens to repeatedly. "I had the best time visiting you and Michelle," his chirpy mother's voice tells him in a year-old message that Dean can't bring himself to delete.
Michelle was Dean's fiancée. But he really only proposed, he later admits to someone, to please his mother before she passed away. He's since called things off with Michelle.
And so a year after Dean's mom's death, the young man is adrift in a vague, unending fog of emotional disorientation he can't quite define, can't quite escape. So he keeps drawing grim reapers.
Perhaps a trip to California to visit his old college friend, Eric, will lead to a breakthrough. Or perhaps meeting a sassy, interesting woman named Nicky in L.A. will jumpstart his grief-numbed heart.
Or perhaps that change of scenery will simply be the catalyst for Dean to finally articulate how achingly he misses his mother.
Dean largely lacks the capacity to verbalize his grief. But it leaks out through his grim drawings, many of which involve the grim reaper. He's trying to process his massive loss, but he doesn't really know how to do that very well. Something similar is true for Dean's father, Robert, who struggles to know whether or not he should sell his Brooklyn home after his wife dies. The potential sale of the house becomes something of a metaphor for both men's willingness to move on; Dean can't bear the thought of the family home being sold, while Robert can't bear the thought of living there alone.
That said, Robert has a sense that Dean isn't doing well, and he tries to coax him out of his emotional denial. Near the end of the film, Dean's able to admit that his dad's assessment of his mental state has been accurate. "You were right," Dean says. "I disappeared there for a while." Then he adds, "You know, I think about mom every day. … She's everywhere, you know? No matter what I do. I just keep thinking about her every day. And dad, I can't even imagine what you're going through. I'm worried about you."
Dean also receives some wisdom from another old college friend whose father passed years before. Brett tells Dean, "We're never going to not miss them. This is the first big thing in your life you're never going to get over." Regarding Dean's at times awkward attempts to communicate with his dad, Brett counsels, "Whatever's going on with you and your dad, just go easy on him."
Dean has saved several voicemail messages from his mother. One of them encourages him, "Don't worry. Take a deep breath. I know you can do it." Another thanks him for drawings he sent her. It's obvious that she was a loving, engaged mother, and those small narrative details help us understand why Dean is grieving her loss so deeply.
After Dean begins to talk about his grief, it enables him to send an empathetic letter to Eric, whose beloved cat died. "Nothing can replace him," Dean writes. "But that doesn't mean you won't be OK again. But if there's one thing I've learned, if you really loved them, you'll never lose them."
One of Dean's drawings is labeled "Existence." It features a line, under which are four headings: "Life, Death, Afterlife, After Party." We see a priest officiate a wedding.
Dean is reconsidering whether he should have broken up with Michelle. In the midst of that, he travels to see Eric in California. Eric's something of a pick-up artist who seems only really interested in casual sex. (His main method involves saying mean things to make women feel insecure, which supposedly makes them easier to seduce.) Dean, for his part, is far less interested in that pursuit, even though Eric tries to "mentor" him in that area as the pair banters with two single women at a bar.
At a party, Dean meets a vivacious, interesting woman named Nicky. Dean and Nicky connect during a couple of subsequent dates. They kiss a couple of times, and they eventually spend the night together in a hotel room (we see the bare shoulders of both, and sex is implied but not shown). [Spoiler Warning] Nicky leaves before Dean wakes up the next morning, with a note of explanation telling him that she's actually married and is trying to work through issues with her estranged husband. She apologizes for letting things go so far before revealing that fact to a now heartbroken (again) Dean.
Robert strikes up a romantic relationship with his real estate agent, Carol. They kiss as well. But when she invites him to come up to her place after a date, he realizes that he's not emotionally ready yet for a new relationship.
An erratic female friend of Dean's, Becca, sends mixed messages about her interest in him. When Dean doesn't reciprocate her attempt to kiss him, she gets very angry and storms off.
Some women wear cleavage-baring dresses. Bikini-clad females are shown on a beach. One of Dean's odd drawings is of an apparently naked clown whose genitals are covered by the same kind of crazy hair the clown has. Someone verbally references a nerdy teen with his "d--k in his hand."
Other sexually tinged dialogue crudely references homosexuality, a woman's breasts, a feminine hygiene product and casual sex before dating someone.
Dean gets slapped in the face by two different people, and he nearly gets in a fight with one of them. Becca drives recklessly through L.A. A large photograph at a museum prominently pictures a man pressing a pistol into the side of his nose. We hear that Eric's cat was critically injured when a piece of furniture fell on him.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words, 10 s-words. We hear five misuses of God's name and two of Jesus' name. There are a handful of uses each of "a--," "a--hole," "d--mit" "h---" and "d--k." One of Dean's drawings is of a cactus in the form of a crude hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters are shown drinking various alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, champagne, margaritas) in various contexts (a dance club, a restaurant, a wedding reception, a party). Empty beer bottles are shown on a coffee table in Eric's apartment.
Robert makes a gesture that mimics smoking marijuana.
Other Negative Elements
Dean's second book, which mostly includes his death drawings, is titled Life and Other Jokes. Another drawing visually represents flatulence. Still another pictures an embarrassed Dean as a steaming pile of excrement.
Twice we see men's backs as they urinate. One of them has a dog who's doing the same thing right next to him. There's a verbal reference to a dog sniffing a man's crotch.
Dean is as quirky and meandering as its titular character's offbeat drawings are, stumbling through its tragicomic (and occasionally profane and suggestive) narrative. When people talk about "indie" movies, they're talking about movies like this one. It's about as far from those bombastic, big-budget blockbuster CGI affairs as you can possibly get.
Meandering as it may be, however, Dean eventually finds its way to a tender conclusion. After jetting off to L.A., falling in love with someone who's as troubled as Dean is (albeit in a different way) and returning to New York City, Dean is finally able to articulate his grief with his dad for the first time since his mom died.
Robert is on a parallel journey himself. "I'm going to be fine," he tells his son in response. "I'm not sure when, but I'm going to be fine." Then he says of his deceased wife, "I can't tell you how lucky I feel to have known her."
So while Dean is about grief, it also illustrates how grief can ultimately yield gratitude—even if the pathway to that place is a strange, disorienting and heart-wrenching one.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Demetri Martin as Dean; Gillian Jacobs as Nicky; Kevin Kline as Robert; Mary Steenburgen as Carol; Reid Scott as Brett; Rory Scovel as Eric; Briga Heelan as Becca; Christine Woods as Michelle; Barry Rothbart as Kevin; Ginger Gonzaga as Jill; Luka Jones as Toby
Demetri Martin ( )
June 2, 2017