Catholic Movie Club: The hard truths about family and forgiveness in ‘Rachel Getting Married’
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
“Sometimes I don’t want to believe in a God who could forgive me,” Kym (Anne Hathaway) says in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008), directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Jenny Lumet.
She is at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting near her childhood home, to which she has returned following her most recent (but not first) stint in rehab, in time for her sister’s wedding. It is a weekend characterized by all-enveloping love: not only between the happy couple but radiating from the family and friends who have assembled to celebrate. The groom’s mother calls it a rehearsal for heaven. But Kym, burdened by the harm she has caused in the past, struggles to find herself in this vision.
In Kym, we see the hard truth about forgiveness: sometimes we have the most difficulty forgiving ourselves or seeking forgiveness from those who love us most. The hurt in those relationships cuts deepest; those are the wounds that won’t stay closed. But our closest relationships also offer us a human expression of God’s unconditional love. With that love extraordinary things can happen.
In Kym, we see the hard truth about forgiveness: sometimes we have the most difficulty forgiving ourselves or seeking forgiveness from those who love us most.
In “Rachel Getting Married,” Kym is the prodigal daughter: coming home yearning for absolution but already preparing herself for rejection. Her family is loving but dysfunctional, all of them still aching from a devastating tragedy for which Kym feels responsible. Her father Paul (Bill Irwin) hovers and frets; her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) harbors years of resentment toward Kym and the gravitational force her drama exerts on the rest of the family; her mother, Abby (Debra Winger), divorced and remarried, is airy and distant.
In the hands of a less empathetic filmmaker, it could be abrasive and melodramatic, with battle lines drawn and a forced conclusion where the baggage is put to rest. But Demme brings his trademark compassion to this story, shooting it intimately on handheld cameras (credit, too, to cinematographer Declan Quinn), which give us a front row seat to family arguments while never allowing us to forget the characters’ humanity. Lumet’s script is generous, embracing the difficulty of both making and accepting amends. There are no villains here: just people, fumbling for grace.
Forgiveness is a two-way street: It needs to be offered, and it needs to be received. Often, I feel like that second piece is harder than the first. It is painful and jarring to realize that you can, and have, caused deep harm to people you love. Even more than that: to realize that the harm we cause is irreversible. We can heal, but we cannot undo what we have done. At another Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Kym and the rest of the group recite the Serenity Prayer, which begins: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance is difficult because it asks us to reckon seriously with the harm we have caused and emerge still believing that we are worthy of love.
To the human mind, it doesn’t make any sense, but this is how God operates. Jesus uses the parable of the good shepherd and the prodigal son to give us a model of this extravagant, unconditional love. We may see ourselves as lost, but God always stands by the gate, arms open, waiting for our return.
In “Rachel Getting Married,” this love is embodied in the wedding itself. Aside from some unfortunate cultural appropriation of South Asian customs, it is a beautiful, joyous celebration of human diversity and connection. It is in this sequence, which largely passes without dialogue, where Kym and her family finally achieve some measure of grace and healing. The wounds are not completely healed, and likely never will be. But for that one night, the characters all bear witness to a deeper truth: We are loved. We can be forgiven. No one is ever truly lost.
“Rachel Getting Married” is available to rent and buy on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and DirecTV.