It may sound heartless to knock a film about a man dying of cancer asking his family to respect his wishes to die, but Lullaby treats every single scene and character interaction as an excuse for volatile explosions and never modulates. There’s also the problem of the film taking symbolic gestures at literal face-values, like a daughter filing an injunction against her father’s wishes only to be told that she must present a compelling argument for his remaining alive. There’s an overabundance of moments like this in Lullaby that smother the more emotionally candid moments and tip the film towards the maudlin.
At least Lullaby is stacked with an impeccable cast. Many of the players are stranded with little to do, like Amy Adams’ supportive ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Hudson’s motor-mouthed nurse with a penchant for expletives, and Terrence Howard as an emotionally invested doctor. They do fine with the material, but the material doesn’t ask much of actors of their pedigree and caliber. It does offer better roles for Anne Archer as the grieving wife and family peace-keeper, Richard Jenkins as the dying man begging his family to respect his wishes, and Jessica Barden as a dying teenager. The three of them could easily beg the audience for sympathy, or they could turn on the waterworks and demand crocodile tears from the audience, but they play coy scenes of heavy sentiment with unexpected edge. Barden in particular knows that she’s got the character that’s easiest to feel sorry for, but she never asks us to, and occasionally reveals moments of bratty behavior and snark that feel typical to a teenager and forsakes playing her character as a saintly wunderkind.
Hovering above it all is Garrett Hedlund in a performance that belongs in a better movie. Lullaby fails to make his estrangement and bitterness towards his father believable, but Hedlund tears into the material in such a way that we almost buy it all. The narrative never gives him a tether for why or where this dissatisfaction comes from, but he manages to create a believably layered performance in spite of the limitations. He makes the material better than it really is, and he juggles the anguish, repentance, and the ever-shifting familial dynamics with aplomb. If only Lullaby had risen to his level we would really have something special here. As it is, it’s a bit of a schmaltzy euthanasia story that’s emotional manipulative in the worst of ways.