The Box juxtaposes the emotional suffering of loss with the joy of familial love, transcending temporal space to tell the story of a grieving father and the life he shared with his wife and daughter.
The film shuffles through the life of this family of three as seen from the perspective of a home camera, complete with a glowing red light and the letters REC in the bottom right corner of the screen. One of these scenes records their daughter's birthday. With great commotion by her parents, she blows out ten pink, flickering candles arranged on a visibly home-made chocolate cake. The camera appears to sit on a table in the room with them, and the two parents present her with a wrapped box. To great excitement, their daughter opens the gift: a pair of headphones.
Then they are in their backyard, where father (played by Jeff Fenter, of Breaking Bad) and daughter (Emily Stuhler, of Beyond the Farthest Star) toss a beach ball back and forth in front of a swimming pool. 'Come get sunscreen', calls the mother (Heather Child, of Humans Vs. Zombies) from behind the camera. But before the father can turn around, his daughter pushes him into the pool fully clothed. The camera angle comes to rest on a table, and into the frame runs the mother to push her daughter into the pool as well. There is a lot of laughing and splashing.
And finally, the daughter films her parents dancing to slow music in their bedroom, and after making a joke about catching them in this moment of intimacy, they invite her to join. All three dance together in the camera's frame.
But interspersed amongst these brief moments of shared family experience, there are other scenes and they are darker, more mysterious. In addition to the defined documentary scenes of the home video variety, there are also scenes that communicate memory rather than documentation. The cinematography is intentionally nebulous, mimicking a perceived temporal distance and the vagueness of memory. These scenes seem unreal, dreamlike, and far in the past.
But they are also ordinary. In one of these, mother and daughter prepare for their day in a brightly lit kitchen. It is morning, and the daughter sits at the kitchen table finishing her homework while her mother rushes around talking into her telephone and picking up papers. Her husband offers her a travel mug filled with coffee, which she happily accepts. The entire scene, dreamlike in quality, appears to emerge from the sight of the husband. The perspective whether in the portrayal of reality or from the view of the mind's eye centres on the father.
Fenter, Child, and Stuhler give strong performances, but the film's overall depiction of familial love is simple and generic. Scene after scene shows an idealisation of American life, free of problems and filled with love. There are only smiles, and sadness only enters the film in the form of loss and solitary grief. This depiction has a function, however, as it serves to blur the line between reality and nostalgia, fact and fantasy. The familial perfection is impossible, but through the retroactive gaze of a grieving father, it feels real.
Music becomes an important method by which director Hugo Martinez separates reality from fiction by emphasising the distinction between these scenes. While the unreal qualities of memory contrast with the documentary photography of home video, the mere presence of music distinguishes the present from the past. The parsing is difficult, and seamless transitions integrate reality with memory and perhaps even fantasy but music cuts through this nonlinear narrative. It brings the father back to the present and back to his grief.
But even here there is also ambiguity: dead characters enter the present in defiance of the barrier of temporality and their relegation to the past. The real melts with the imaginary like the memories and experiences of a grieving parent and partner, and the result is haunting. The compositional arc matches this narrative, beginning lightly and steadily increasing in heaviness toward a final metaphorical release. The Box's nonlinear, nonspecific narrative tells a story of grief that succeeds in conveying the universal pain of loss.
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