Achingly raw, this drama allows an audience to understand -- but not feel -- the internal anguish of the loss of a baby. Without being emotionally manipulative, Pieces of a Woman brings to light many parents' worst fear. But viewers don't actually walk in Martha's shoes: We are with her, but we are not her. Kirby's performance is remarkable, particularly the authenticity she brings to the childbirth sequence; she resets the bar for how labor is portrayed in the media. But Martha is also aloof and keeps her feelings in her pocket -- we see that she has access to them, but she keeps them hidden from everyone else. Those feelings do escape from time to time, emerging as snarky asides or mocking expressions. When cornered, she explodes; but even then, it's a controlled blast. Her ability to keep Sean and her family at a distance keeps viewers at an arm's length, too. That's a smart device to allow the audience to get lost in the story, rather than drowning in Martha's sorrow.
The film also opens the door to see how grief can encompass and overtake a family. Martha's controlling mother (Ellen Burstyn, who's magnificent) is grappling with the loss of her granddaughter by trying to take over. Meanwhile, Sean is desperate for someone to throw him a life preserver, but no one is offering -- he's virtually left alone in his grief. LaBeouf's problematic real-life personal behavior may overshadow his phenomenal talent in portraying a father's agony. He's astounding as Sean, most impressively in the moment he first sees his baby when she takes her first breaths. Without words, he relays in a facial expression the surge of love and emotional connection that transpires in an instant. In the months after the baby passes, Sean's downward spiral makes it all too easy to judge, with audiences possibly slipping into the trap of focusing on Martha's heartbreak and ignoring Sean's, even though it clearly belongs to him as well. For anyone who's experienced the loss of a child, it will likely to be too relatable, too distressing. For other parents and caregivers, it's a "but for the grace of God" moment. And for teens, unless there's a good reason for them to watch the film, it's just not advisable. The story and its truthful twists and turns are likely to be upsetting for those who don't yet have the life experience to comprehend the psychological aftermath of a devastating event of this magnitude.