Title: Cake

Director: Daniel Barnz

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Felicity Huffman and Chris Messina

Testing your emotional limitations as you strive to fully understand such diverse things as your motivations, reactions and interactions with the people who have the most powerful influence in your life can be a daunting experience for anyone. But that exploration can be even more unnerving as you become so disenchanted with the way your life turned out that you intentionally push the people who care the most about you away, which ultimately causes you more heartbreak and pain. Director Daniel Barnz’s new independent drama, ‘Cake,’ powerfully and entrancingly chronicles the harrowing experiences a distraught mother is forced to contend with in the aftermath of her young son’s death. She becomes so angry that everyone else around her is moving on as she tries to find meaning in her life again that she deliberately ruins their relationships, in an effort to justify her impulsive and careless behavior.

‘Cake’ follows a former Los Angeles lawyer, Claire Simmons (Jennifer Aniston), who’s still bitterly contending with her physical and emotional pain from a car accident she was involved in a couple years, which resulted in the devastating death of her young son. She’s still estranged from her high-profile political husband, Jason (Chris Messina), who’s also emotionally struggling with their son’s death, but has managed to cope with their loss enough to return to work. But Claire is still in so much physical and emotional turmoil that she isn’t able to hide it, which leads her to insult almost every person she interacts with in her life. She also has no qualms about lying and stealing to get what she wants, including prescription pain medication to help her deal with her reality.

But despite acknowledging her own suffering, Claire is continuously insensitive to the needs of those around her. She’s kicked out of her chronic-pain support group by the leader, Annette (Felicity Huffman), after she expressed her admiration for her fellow member, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who summoned the courage to leap off a freeway overpass to her death. But Nina’s suicide also pushes Claire to question what it really means to live, and how abandonment and heartbreak can ultimately lead to her salvation. So she tracks down Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), to find closure to Nina’s death. In the process, she learns how to start appreciating emotional connections again, after she meets Roy and Nina’s son, who was the same age as her own child when he died.

After learning to appreciate developing meaningful relationships again, Claire starts to truly value the work and companionship of her housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). While Nina’s caretaker barely tolerates her boss’ dependency on liquor and prescription pills to make her feel better, Silvana recognizes her continued agony over how her life turned out. Knowing she’s one of the very few people who still truly care for, and support, Claire, Silvana will do whatever it takes to help her boss reclaim the thriving life she once had.

While Claire easily and naturally finds herself in heated conflicts with people who don’t always agree with her outlook and approach to dealing with her grief, from Annette to Jason and most notably, Silvana, ‘Cake’ is an intensely emotional character study of the flawed but understandably still grieving protagonist. After living a fulfilling and enriching personal and professional life with Jason as they happily raised their young son together, and thriving in her career as a lawyer, Claire experienced one of life’s most heart-wrenching tragedies when she unexpectedly lost her child.

The Golden Globe-nominated Aniston not only endearingly embraced the painful physicality of Claire’s lingering injuries from the crash, but also brought a humility to remembering her son and pondering what the future may have held for him. While the actress captivatingly captured the internal struggles her character faced whenever she contemplated the life she could have had if the accident hadn’t occurred, Aniston also enthrallingly emphasized the pain she both deliberately and inadvertently inflicted on the people around her. Whether Claire was unintentionally causing Silvana to worry about her self-destructive patterns, such as her growing dependency on her prescriptions in order to numb her pain, or purposefully upsetting her fellow group members for their continued sorrow over Nina’s death, the actress grippingly showcased the various emotions her character experienced as she struggled to recover.

While Aniston gave a career-defining performance as Claire in the harrowing drama, proving once and for all that she truly has the talent to move past the often clichéd romantic comedies she has starred in over the past two decades, ‘Cake’ unfortunately also features several underdeveloped relationships that could have been more developed to make the story more engaging and fulfilling. While the relationship between Claire and Roy, for example, initially began as the two were both contending with the loss of some of the most important people in their lives, the drama never fully explains the kind of bond the two really formed together. There’s no true exploration into whether the two have become just friends as they bonded over their mutual losses, or if they’re interested in forming a romantic bond as they share their most vulnerable feelings and thoughts with each other.

There’s also a captivating scene between Claire and her estranged husband after she and Silvana drive to Mexico to illegally buy more prescription medications for her pain. After the two women are stopped and questioned at the border, Claire calls Jason to ask him to use his influence to have them released from custody. After the formerly happy married couple reunite to discuss how Claire is coping with life now that a few years have passed since the accident, Aniston and Messina powerfully infused their characters’ relationship with lingering feelings of mutual love and concern. After their brief interaction at Claire’s house, the two remain in contact throughout the rest of the film. But instead of spending more time with Jason, she instead decides to focus her attention on spending time with Roy and his son, pondering the question of whether she viewed them as a replacement family, she really cares for them or both.

‘Cake’ is a heartfelt, emotional drama that features a riveting, career-defining performance by the Screen Actors’ Guild Award-nominated Aniston, who effortlessly embodied Claire’s lingering physical and emotional injuries from her life-defining car accident. The actress not only powerfully showcased the internal struggles her character faced whenever she contemplated the life she could have had if her son hadn’t so tragically died, but also intriguingly emphasized the pain she both knowingly and unconsciously inflicted on the people around her. While Aniston proved what a truly mesmerizing performer she is when she chooses meaningful and powerful roles that showcase life’s most difficult hardships, the drama unfortunately didn’t fully explain the motivations behind Claire’s most meaningful relationships. If the intentions behind those important connections were more fully examined, the drama would offer a fully captivating, inspirational explanation into how people truly and completely in the most dire situations.

Technical: B

Acting: A

Story: B+

Overall: B+

Written by: Karen Benardello

Cake Movie Review

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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