Every Brilliant Thing… Reflections on a movie

Posted by on Mar 10, 2017 in Blog | 5 comments

On a recent flight back to Perth, I watched a HBO documentary, “Every Brilliant Thing”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the brief blurb about it said “Adapted from the hit Broadway-show, and balancing sobering loss with cathartic laughter, this deeply poignant film recounts a life lived in the shadow of suicide.”  I guess it’s a comment on the other options that I decided to watch, but it turned out to be one of those rare instances where low expectations had to be dramatically recalibrated and I sat thinking, “oh my, this is in a league of its own – a genuinely brilliant thing.”

A bit about the film. A direct filming of the live play, it’s a one man deal (Jonny Donahoe the performer), but gets to involve the entire audience – all of whom enter in… brilliantly (seeing it is about brilliant things). It starts with Donahoe recounting the time, as a seven year old, when he lives through his mother’s first suicide attempt. While not really knowing what it is about, his response is to start a list of brilliant things – things that make life worth living.

The list is representative of the seven year old boy. The audience gets to call them out. Brilliant thing 1 – ice cream, 2 – water fights, 3 – staying up beyond bedtime and being allowed to watch TV, the colour yellow, things with stripes, people falling over. As he grows older, the focus changes and the list of brilliant things becomes more sophisticated – but keeps expanding. He is determined to get it to reach 1000 by the time he gets to University. And he makes sure his mother reads it. Though she never comments on it, she always carefully returns it to his room, doing it in such a way that he knows she has read it. His girlfriend (later wife, later amicably divorced) inadvertently gets to see the list, and adds to it. It just keeps growing… Brilliant things, found everywhere in life, from the obvious (sex) to the obscure (the prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler). The list eventually reaches a million.

And that’s the magic of this show – being able to spot a million brilliant things in the midst of a life lived in the shadow of suicide, and where depression and mental illness is a never absent companion.

Yes, his mother does commit suicide – gassing herself in the car (from memory the summary line was something like, “such a strange choice – she always hated cars, said driving hurt her ankles”)… And you are impacted by the never absent sense of a loss about to be incurred. But it is woven together with laughter – genuinely funny moments. But most of all there is the sense of wonder – wonder that life, for all its pain and pathos, has so many brilliant moments.

As the show went on I kept thinking about who I wanted to get to watch it.

I’m currently teaching a preaching class, and I thought how much we would have to talk about if we viewed it together. As a piece of communication it was astonishing. A single voice telling a story with impeccable timing. But it wasn’t just any story – it was a story that matters. There was understatement – places for the imagination to take over and to complete what couldn’t quite be said. Pathos was balanced by humour. It was always serious, but never so intense that you felt you had to back away. And there was structure and rhythm and movement and flow. And also music and song – not within every preachers grasp, to be sure, but it was used to such good effect. And the audience was always involved, being invited to participate and play different roles… And they did, some with genuine skill – all with the empathy that the script called forth from each observer.

But then I decided that this was a documentary to show to the pastoral care class I teach next semester. The issues it deals with touch so many lives… Suicide, and depression, and love and loss, and living in the shadows – and being able to spot every brilliant thing in the midst of it.

And I am writing this blog post – so I guess that means I’m also encouraging you to see it. Why? After all, it is a secular movie – faith not even mentioned. Yet strangely, in its own way, it is about faith… faith that a fundamental goodness lies behind life, and that life is always sacred, no matter what. Sobering though it is, ultimately it is a celebration of life. And it affirms that while life offers no easy solutions, it does provide brilliant things… They are out there everywhere – waiting to be spotted – snatches of music, unexpected smiles, the kindness of strangers, coffee and chocolate… Glimpses of grace offered to all, and within our grasp, whatever the season…

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Enjoyed the read.

  2. Thanks for taking the time Brian. It sounds brilliant! Those of us living in a place like Australia need to remember to focus on the blessings in our lives, rather than dwelling on the misfortunes, or even minor irritations. (I’m talking to myself!)

  3. Always love to read what you have to say about all sorts! So glad Iv’e made a connection to the Harris’s again special people. They walked into our llives in uMhlanga KZN South Africa and left footprints on our Souls!

    • Thanks so much Ruth. And so good to be in touch again.

  4. What a refreshing and sobering read. We tend to take so much for granted. Thanks for a great article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.