At some point in life, everyone wonders what happens when we die. Even as adults, the answer we believe could change drastically through a single event. It’s a question that nobody is certain of due to the sheer amount of interpretations. So if it’s confusing for adults, one can only imagine what it must be like for a child to comprehend the vast possibilities. With The Place of No Words, filmmaker Mark Webber attempts to make the concept more concrete for his child.
Webber considers this film to be part of a method of filmmaking he calls “reality cinema”. The Place of No Words takes the form of a metaphysical fantasy adventure, but at its core, it’s a realistic depiction of that complex question every human must eventually face. Casting himself, his actual wife, actress Teresa Palmer, and child, Bohdi Palmer, this realism comes across wonderfully. At times, the film feels as if it’s peering into a series of home videos, if only to shift the perspectives this family is sharing with one another. It’s as if this film is partially a documentary, while simultaneously being another form of cinema entirely.
As the adorable Bodhi asks his father about death, the film transports the viewer to a land seemingly pulled from the Lord of the Rings. Yet this is not an idealistic fantasy world, but rather, a realistic parallel of the world. There are perils that Bodhi is warned of, and equipped with a sword and accompanied by his father, they must be ready. A slew of creatures and landscapes are encountered on their travels, and the vignettes are linked through moments in the household. It’s difficult to choose what sections are more charming, but there is an extended sequence involving Uranus and “the farting swamp” that will be sure to put a smile on every face in the audience.
However, while The Place of No Words is full of childlike wonder and charm, it can also feel ominous at times. It’s very intentional due to the subject matter obviously, and one may wonder if these moments serve to ease children into the concept of death. The film definitely seems like it could be shown to children who are young, and would not scare them too much, as the darker bits quickly lead to moments of joy and celebration of life. The film ends with a song entitled “I’m Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore”, and it couldn’t be more fitting. What seems scary at first is essential to bringing forth the better understanding and deeper appreciation of life by the conclusion.
Bodhi and his father meet many familiar faces on their travels, although they are now portraying characters in this fantasy realm. Each one has a lesson for Bodhi, and sometimes, even for Mark. For The Place of No Words is not just about a child learning about death, but how a father contemplates confronting this upsetting conversation. The fantasy realm presented is a deeply metaphysical journey through the ups and downs of the complex situation. There’s no correct way to go about it as every example differs, yet the core themes remain the same.
What works so well about this film is the premise in and of itself is a predicament with no proper solution. Fittingly, no words could adequately describe to a child what happens when a loved one dies. So instead of reveling in a climactic moment where all is explained, it is instead left to a consistent voiceover that jumps in periodically. As we witness more and more of Bodhi’s endearing outlook on life, the narration becomes all the more heartbreaking. For although Webber is not suffering from whatever his character is in the film, this still very much comes across as a deeply personal film.
It stands as a living testament to the conversation that may not have been had yet, but one that someday will be. It is universal to all those who watch, but at the same time, is a direct letter to Webber’s own son. In that regard, The Place of No Words is twofold in its approach, and can be commended greatly for fitting both “niches”. It is barebones in its approach to a premise that is rather grand and slightly ambitious. This film will tug at your heartstrings as you watch, and will surely sit with you long after you’ve left the theater.
The Place of No Words is celebrating its world premiere and is part of the U.S. Narrative Competition Section at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.