Kodachrome is a strange movie to review. It’s a good movie on a technical level: well-shot, well-acted, well-written, and by the end of the movie emotionally impactful, but once the credits roll it’s hard to remember exactly what happened in it.
Part of the problem is that Kodachrome is part of a hyper-specific genre: son or daughter who is forced through plot contrivances to interact with their ailing and estranged father who worked too hard when they were young and eventually reconciles with them. In this case the child is played by Jason Sudeikis, a down-on-his-luck music producer, who must drive his dying father – a famous photographer played by Ed Harris – to develop a roll of film at the last store that handles Kodachrome in the final days of his life. Along for the ride is Elizabeth Olsen as Ed Harris’s nurse.
All three of the main actors are well-cast: Sudeikis is both charming and has the over-the-hill quality of aging out of being a cool, Ed Harris is intimidating and completely believable as a distant father, and Elizabeth Olsen is young, vivacious, and somewhat predictably underwritten, as love interests in these movies tend to be. The movie only succeeds as far as it does because of how genuinely likable the three actors are, but they’re all almost too well-cast. These are all archetypes they’ve played before, and there’s nothing particularly interesting to how the film uses them, no spark or friction to it.
Much like a romcom, the shape of the plot and emotional beats of the estranged child and parent story are fairly predictable, and irritatingly confining. We know that by the end of the movie the two characters will have had to reconcile no matter what legitimate grievances the child may have for the parent, because otherwise the entire structure of the film falls apart. This is especially frustrating in Kodachrome, because Ed Harris’s character is simply a terrible person: cruel, distant, emotionally abusive, and physically absent for much of Sudeikis’s character’s childhood. And right from the start, this creates a dissonance between the severity of the character’s faults and how the movie wants you to see him. Throughout the movie, Sudeikis’s character is constantly faulted and reprimanded by Elizabeth Olsen’s for his completely legitimate anger and bitterness towards his father for the things he’s done through the constant refrain that he’s dying.
The fundamental problem is that, in real life, death doesn’t absolve someone of their faults or sins or abuses and doesn’t mean they should be forgiven. Doing so privileges the abuser’s fear of death over that over the very real pain they caused their victims and puts the unfair responsibility on the abused to forgive them when they’ve done very little to earn that forgiveness. There’s a scene late in the movie while Ed Harris’s character is near death where he breaks down and recounts how used to hold Suduikis’s character as a child. It’s fantastically acted, genuinely heartbreaking, and hard to watch, but doesn’t change that he has done nothing in fifty years to try and make amends for how terrible a parent he was.
Lindsay Ellis, in her review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, talks about how well the movie handles the ambiguity of feeling that comes when a flawed parent passes. To quote her: “the expectation for the reaction of a child after a parent dies is more akin to Peter’s mother: unquestioning veneration of the parent. But what do you do, how do you feel when your parents were not, shall we say, perfect?”
It might sound ironic because superhero movies are thought of as lowbrow, but Kodachrome should have been more like Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of exploring the complexities of the question of how to process the death of a parent who was not perfect or even necessarily good. In the hospital scene and the last half of the film Sudeikis’s character could have hit a middle ground: not forgiving his father, but acknowledging that this is a man on his deathbed and not wanting him to have to die alone.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t take that route, and instead hews closer to the more traditional structure of having Sudeikis’s character forgive his father in the end and see the value of his life. It’s the safe choice and one that means that, when Kodachrome’s credits roll, you’ll remember it fondly but not quite remember for what.