With his second feature film, director Drew Britton wanted Back at the Staircase to be an examination of human interaction; a vehicle to showcase how distinctive personalities react in a time of crisis. The crisis happens to be when an often-mentioned yet off-screen elderly woman falls down the stairs before a huge dinner party, and her estranged family are left to simmer in a small lodge out in the middle of the woods.
The family in question is comprised of three siblings, a cousin, and the cousin’s recent girlfriend, Jody (Leonora Pitts). Despite being the biological outsider, Jody acts as the film’s primary lens into the dysfunctional nature of the family; she seems to be the only one to recognise their hatred for one another – as is usually the case. So you’ve got these five people in an uncomfortably intimate space, and a nearby neighbour, Heidi (Heather LaVine), who wants nothing to do with them. Aside from their recent tragedy, it’s a surprisingly relatable premise.
So did Britton achieve his goal of holding a mirror up to human interaction? Yes and no. There’s some genuinely great moments of revelation throughout Back at the Staircase, when we get glimpses into the troubled history between the family members. Margaret (Mickey O’Hagan), the utterly unlikable sister to Phillip (Stephen Plunkett) and Trisha (Jennifer Lafleur), spends most of the film being a reprehensible figure who evidently has little regard for anyone but herself. And yet her sister Trisha seems to constantly cover for her selfishness – there’s some great characterisation like this that makes the film feel much more truthful than others that have tried to deal with families. This isn’t some kind of Disney-fied glimpse into a picturesque gathering; these people have some serious issues with one another.
However, for all the great moments of insight and emotion, there’s a handful of awkward encounters that make caricatures stand out amongst realistic performances. The brother, Phillip, sways between kooky and downright frightening in his mannerisms, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he butchered the rest of the family after the credits roll. But, of course, this isn’t that kind of film – which is a shame.
Obviously, not every movie set in a cabin in the woods with an occasionally eerie score needs to be a cabin in the woods movie. But there were so many glimmers of horror throughout Back at the Staircase that I couldn’t quite work out what the director was going for. There’s some lovely cinematography and moments of tension within the dialogue, but Plunkett’s performance as Phillip feels like it would fit better in something like 2015’s thriller-mystery, The Invitation. He doesn’t just feel quirky; he seems downright dangerous.
Additionally, the casting for the film felt a bit odd. I found it hard to believe that the cousin, Ian (Logan Lark), would be with somebody like Jody; at first, I thought he was a father figure within the house’s dynamic. Despite the film being primarily about family, it took quite some time to work out who everybody was in relation to each other; not exactly ideal when everything depends on their relationship. Also, the wider world and the backstory of the elderly woman who fell down the stairs is briefly hinted at via a phone message, but I would have liked just a little more to get hooked.
Despite all of this, I would certainly recommend Back at the Staircase for fans of film who favour acting and characters over progressing narrative. It isn’t a film that has huge revelations or twists, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s a brisk, engaging piece that showcases some solid writing and performances.