'Ethel' Displays Sass, Strength Of A Kennedy

Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy shares the story of her mother Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, at the Sarasota Film Festival.

It's refreshing to go along the ride with someone who has a side of mischief with some strength and the audience during the Sunday evening screening of Ethel witnessed just that.

In Ethel, we follow Ethel Kennedy's life and at times it's more Lucy than Ethel. (Ethel screened again for Sarasota Film Festival at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Sarasota High School and Rory will participate in the In Conversation Series at the screening.) 

Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Robert Kennedy, shares her life story with her youngest daughter Rory Kennedy, who directed the HBO film. Woven in Ethel's story is that of Robert, or Bobby, Kennedy and his time with the family, but Rory never got to know her father one-on-one. She was born just six months after her father's June 6, 1968, assassination.  

But beyond the bittersweet, we get sass. Like the time Ethel brought home a seal for the family at their Hickory Hill estate in McLean, Virginia, or crashed a scooter minutes after she was presented with it as a gift in Italy, or that time she stole a horse because it was in grave condition.

Some of that mischief played out into a post-film story by Rory Kennedy who told the crowd during a post-film Q-and-A session how she and her brother Douglas wanted to go to a protest and get arrested to make a stand against apartheid in South Africa. Their mother's response? 

"I think it's great! I'll drive you down there!" Rory shared with the crowd, which erupted in laughter.

Documentaries, especially ones that are bit more on the memoir side, pry and get their subjects to open up and spill all. Rory admitted in the start of the film she'd have a tough go with it because her mom wouldn't do her any favors on that end. Her mother is naturally and understandably guarded on some of the more tragic events in the family's life while deflecting credit for her strength to others.

Given that challenge, of all families to conduct a documentary, the Kennedys should be one with ease considering the amount of historical and family footage in the archives and the countless relatives to give their take, and Rory seem to find the right moments to share. Which on second thought, is actually a challenge because there is so many hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. 

But the audience knows and readies itself for that moment — Bobby Kennedy's death. You think you're prepared for it after getting choked up with John F. Kennedy's assassination, but it happens again and it wasn't tough to hear the sniffles in the theater.

As Sarasota Film Festival Director Tom Hall remarked before the Sarasota screening when he viewed Ethel with critics at Sundance: "It made a room full of jerks leave with smiles and tears."

Still, there are moments of triumph despite tragedy sprinkled throughout the film, and in some ways, Rory herself represents that.

Don't worry if you can't grab tickets to Ethel on Monday. Ethel will air on HBO in October, Kennedy said. By that time you should be able to stock up on the tissues.


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