3 Stars – Challenging

Collateral Beauty focuses on one of the most painful experiences anyone can face, that of surviving the loss of your only child.  One can receive condolences, counselling, and shoulders to cry on for the emotional trauma, but the toll that it takes on your soul can take you to the edge of your own life as well.

Howard (Will Smith) is an accomplished entrepreneur and charming friend, husband, and father.  When he loses his 6-year-old daughter to brain cancer, he is so emotionally devastated that everything in his world crumbles before him.  He loses his marriage, he becomes isolated from his closest friends, and his successful business is on the verge of collapse.

In his pain, Howard writes letters not to individuals but to abstractions – to love, to time, to death.  He rails against each of these concepts that in his mind don’t add up to a real answer to his dilemma.  He is haunted by the good intentions of others who give him platitudes that are meant to make him feel better but only leave him angry.  Howard’s grief is a classic case of despair leading one into a hole that is very, very difficult to climb out of or return to a healthy daily existence.

Howard’s co-founders of their firm, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pina) are on the edge of despair as well, since without Howard’s creative spirit and drive, the business is floundering.  Finally, in their desperation, they turn to an answer which on its surface doesn’t seem to be either honest or trustworthy or able to be the catalyst for change.  They hire a troupe of actors to “accidentally” show up in Howard’s life as ghosts (or Angels) representing themselves as Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore), and Death (Helen Merren).  Each meets him along the way in common places such as on a subway platform waiting for a train, and they hand him letters challenging his perceptions of them.  They have called in other bit players to surround them in these enactments so that Howard is left to believe that no one but himself is seeing these people arrive and talk to him.

Without giving away the central plot, these staged events begin to produce a breakthrough in Howard’s life.  He gives in to the requests of his friends and begins to attend a grief therapy group led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris) a capable woman who herself has lost a daughter.  The events that are set in motion by this trail of tears has a double impact, touching everyone involved.  Each of Howard’s coworkers is challenged to have to confront some truth in their own lives, and Madeleine has to lovingly confront Howard in a way that begins to heal her own loss.  Along the way, each of the actors representing Love, Time, and Death have to confront elements of what these abstractions represent in their own real lives.

Painful losses don’t always end up with “feel good” endings.  In Howard’s case, his daughter is not coming back, and his business most likely will not survive.  What does happen, though, is a challenging look at how honestly confronting the pain that is in our lives can open the door for healing.  We would love to know what happens in Howard’s long-term life story, but that is not the point of the movie, just as it is rarely something we get to know in advance in our own lives.  What we do witness, though, is that in the most difficult circumstances of life, healing is possible, and we may emerge stronger due to having gone through the pain.


  1. The loss of a child is a loss not only of our shared future with that child but also the promises of their place in a future beyond our own life.   When the future is lost to us the existential pain is unbearable.  Where do you turn in such a moment for comfort and support? 
  2. It is impossible to return to a life that is forever lost, not only as a father but as an entrepreneur.  The task is to build a new life with this loss as foundational.  How have you built your new life after a significant loss?


Posted on December 27, 2016 and filed under 3 STARS, CHALLENGING.