“I’m not a hypochondriac!” insists Calvin (Asa Butterfield) to his doctor. He certainly acts like one, maintaining that he has some form of cancer despite receiving a clean bill of health. On his doctor’s advice he attends a cancer support group, where he meets Skye, (Maisie Williams) a free spirited patient. Skye has her own unique bucket list, and recruits Calvin to help her accomplish it. As their friendship grows, she crosses objectives off her list while helping Calvin conquer his fears, enjoy life and get a date with the girl of his dreams, flight attendant Izzie (Nina Dobrev).
Peter Hutchings‘ Departures is a wide eyed, cloyingly sentimental film that liberally borrows from pretty much every indie romantic comedy you can think of, from Garden State to Me And Earl & The Dying Girl. It’s full of all the cliches of the genre and is essentially The Bucket List for a younger generation, with all the pros and cons that this implies.
The film works best when its not afraid to be weird, such as the scene involving Skye’s potential coffin. This is a particularly morbid, uncomfortable sequence, but the film commits to it and it ends up being the most moving scene in the film. Unfortunately memorable scenes like this are few and far between, and instead we get a lot of cutesy sequences, many of which have seemingly been lifted from other films. These include a quirky montage seemingly influenced by Rushmore and an impromptu dance sequence straight out of The Breakfast Club.
Williams shines in Skye’s dramatic moments, imbuing her with humanity, and her final breakdown is surprisingly tough to watch. She seems less comfortable as the flighty, impulsive Manic Pixie Dream Girl she portrays for most of the film. She isn’t authentic in her more kooky scenes, and while this may be intentional in the context of the film – her ever changing hairstyles are given context here that almost excuses the use of the trope in the first place – it still feels muddled.
Butterfield gives a decent performance but is lumbered with a character who isn’t given much depth. Again, once the reasons for his hypochondria are revealed he gets a lot more interesting, but the film doesn’t explore this, and then abandons his obsession altogether. His character is reminiscent of the death obsessed protagonist from Harold & Maude, and in places it seems like Departures is trying to emulate the uplifting tone of that film. However it lacks Harold & Maude’s heart, and feels formulaic by comparison.
Dobrev is underused as Izzy, and it feels a bit too much like wish fulfilment that she would be the least bit interested in Calvin. Tyler Hoechlin, unrecognisable from Road To Perdition, and David Koechner play Calvin’s brother and dad respectively; while they are great, they are both criminally underused, and any dramatic moments feel unearned due to a lack of character development. The film is also peppered with comedians in cameos, like Ken Jeong and Tituss Burgess, who provide a breath of fresh air despite essentially phoning it in.
Despite having disliked the majority of Departures, by the end I couldn’t help but get a little choked up. The heartfelt scenes of Skye struggling to cope with her impending death are the strongest in the film and it’s difficult to completely disregard the film’s life affirming message. When the quirky facade drops away, we get a hint of the mature, poignant film this could have been in a handful of scenes, which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s so uninspired for most of it’s run-time.