What would you do if you were told by one of your oldest friends that you might not see her alive again? That’s the premise of Austin-based director (and high school teacher) Sean Gallagher’s debut feature, “Good Night,” co-produced by Gallagher and one of the film’s stars, fellow Austinite Jonny Mars (“The Happy Poet,” “A Teacher”).
In the movie, Leigh (Adriene Mishler) and Winston (Mars) play a reasonably happy married couple, even though Leigh’s terminal illness is putting tremendous stress on the marriage and their finances.
As the film opens, Leigh and Winston are planning a dinner party for some old friends, to celebrate Leigh’s 29th birthday. During the party, she tells everyone that she is not just sick, but very sick indeed, and that night may be the last time they’ll see her alive. Each character reacts in a different way to the news; some, including Leigh’s brother, hold out hope. “Miracles do happen,” he says. But Leigh is at peace with her diagnosis. “She’s passed that mindset [of believing in miracles],” says Gallagher. “There’s a certain point when you have to be pragmatic based on the reality put in front of you.”
Through flashbacks, the film shows some of the events that lead up to the titular “Good Night” party, including the tireless dedication to caring for his wife that Winston exhibits. “When your partner is sick, you’re sick, too,” Mars points out. “In a lot of ways [the movie] is about dealing with the stages of grief, and how far love takes you, to accommodate your partner’s [needs]. That’s a heavy cross.”
Gallagher says the film is also a subtle commentary on the American Dream, and about “not getting what you want.” Winston and Leigh thought that they were on the right path, with a fine home and plans for a family, but illness sucks the life out of them, literally and figuratively.
“We live in a world where if you get a certain kind of illness... you’re done. Our system is set up to take advantage of sick people. People are making money off of sick people,” Gallagher explains. “I read while I was writing [the film] that the two top causes of people declaring bankruptcy are job loss and medical bills. What does that say about our culture?”
As the night wears on, the guests deal with their shock and grief in different, sometimes gently humorous ways. Eventually, Winston and Leigh are left alone to face their remaining future together, and the audience sees an unexpected ending as something that was planned by the couple all along.
“This movie is a gently woven fabric,” says Mars, “and every time you see it, you’re going to see something new. The audience is kind of a member of that dinner party also. So as things go along, I hope you kind of reflect back into the relationship that myself and Adrienne created.”
"Good Night" screens two more times as part of the South By Southwest 2013 Film Festival, on Wednesday, March 13 and Friday, March 15.