Written by Chloe Dascoli.
Life is built on memories—memories of first love, watching the kids grow up, that one diner where you stopped on the family road trip each summer. When you know you’re at the end of life’s road, those memories matter the most. That’s how it is for John (Donald Sutherland) and Ella (Helen Mirren), anyway, as they set out in “The Leisure Seeker” for one last bittersweet trip down memory lane.
Ella, a native of South Carolina, has cancer that has spread throughout her body. Her husband, John, has Alzheimer’s that grows worse every day. In a spontaneous moment the two pack up their vintage RV, the Leisure Seeker, complete with the perfect road trip soundtrack—Carly Simon, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, America—to match. And without telling their helicopter children, they hit the road.
They stop at all the standout spots from their memories—the gas station that sells pecan logs, the Civil War-era themed settlement. But there’s an underlying sense of heartbreak in almost every scene—a sadness that we understand because, like John and Ella, we all have memories and moments lost to years past.
We can never go back because nothing is ever quite how it used to be—the gas station is out of pecan logs, save one whose expiration is long past; the entrance fee for the Civil War settlement has increased from $10 to $80 for the pair.
Ella’s memories are still all too vivid, yet, just out of reach, while John’s memories are faded, gone. He can’t always place the memorable moments of life into the timeline of his past. In one scene, he can’t even remember his own wife.
“Who are you?” Ella asks achingly. “My John is charming, educated. He’s stolen from me and I want you to give him back.”
“If he was stolen from you, he’s stolen from me, too,” John says, and we know that even though he can’t remember, the pain of loss is just as real for him. We cry with them thinking of our own changing times.
But those moments are beautifully balanced by the wit and wisdom that come with age and a life well lived. When John and Ella blow a tire and a passing car tries to rob them, Ella pulls out the shotgun.
“Make sure the safety’s off before you start shooting them, sweetheart,” John says to her, calm as ever.
“Already done it, hon,” she replies.
Like his other films that explore the grief and joys of life (“The First Beautiful Thing,” 2010; “Like Crazy,” 2016), Italian director Paolo Virzi perfectly matches the simplicity of the film with the simplicity of John and Ella’s story—it isn’t absurd or out of reach. It is down to earth, grounded in the fact that John and Ella could be your grandparents, your parents, you.
At the same time, Mirren and Sutherland bring a personality and charisma to their characters only possible by these two award-winning veterans of film. It’s the actors’ familiarity with the screen and audience that elevates their characters from a quirky couple to a part of the family.
“The Leisure Seeker” pulls at all the emotions. It will have you laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time, as you experience the little, everyday things that define a life. As Ella ends each day flipping through images on a slide projector, trying to help John remember their lives, you’ll hope that when all you have left are memories, you too will have the strength and courage to write your own ending.