“The Sea Is All I Know” – a new short starring Academy Award winner Melissa Leo that may snag an Oscar of its own – is about many different kinds of love.
There’s the all-consuming love of a husband and wife for each other and a parent for a child.
There’s the wild, romantic love that lures people to the sea and all too often leads them to what Henry James called “the tideless deep.”
And perhaps most mystical of all, there’s the love of suffering man for God that may be beyond the understanding of even God himself.
They’re bound up in a spare, moving narrative – from the mind of writer-director Jordan Bayne — about a woman dying young and her parents, an estranged couple who reunite to witness her all-too-brief spring.
“It’s a very beautiful, mature love story,” Leo says.
The actress – who attended Purchase College and makes her home in Stone Ridge – has been fearless in bringing beautiful, mature characters to the screen, women whose prettiness has been worn down by struggle and calcified by the toughness they’ve had to assume. In “Frozen River” (2008), for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, Leo stunned critics with her portrayal of a single mom determined to maintain a sense of familial normalcy in an unraveling society. In “The Fighter” (2010), for which she won the Best Supporting Actress award earlier this year, that mother love took on a ruthless edge.
In “Sea,” Leo peels back the edge to expose the raw wound of a woman, Sara, so in tune with her daughter, Angelina (Kelly Hutchinson), and her pain that she is willing – in the view of her horrified husband, Sonny (Peter Gerety) – to defy God and natural law to contemplate ending it.
“The question is raised, What if there were greater and greater pain, with no hope, no dreams?” Leo says. “Like a baby needs to be born into the world, this is how we need to go out, with love and understanding.”
Ultimately, however, “Sea” is not a short about the right to die or even why God permits suffering – though the film touches on these themes. It’s about how people rediscover love through tragedy.
“The couple is estranged as the film opens, although there is an adoring father-daughter relationship,” Leo says. “He can barely face (her illness).”
In bringing their daughter through the long twilight, Sara and Sonny realize that what they are now is what they once meant to each other.
“The beautiful hope for love is for me the strongest element in the story,” she says, adding that “the images of the water are worth seeing.”
Indeed, the presence of a calm sea functions as a soothing backdrop and counterpoint to the tormented principals. It’s a presence that Leo knows well. Like Sonny, Leo’s father was a fisherman on Long Island. (His day job was as an editor at Grove Press.) She visits him and still spends holidays out there, though she makes her home in Stone Ridge. A mother of two sons, Leo notes that there are three places that have been important in her life – New York City, where she was born; the East End of Long Island; and Vermont, where she once lived.
“I found in the Catskills something that encompasses all of that,” says Leo, who enjoys rock climbing in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Whether she’s talking about the natural joys of upstate New York or the moral complexity of “Sea,” Leo exhibits a softness, warmth and humility that have often been beaten down in the lives of her characters. She wants people to know that she did not graduate from Purchase College; she only attended it. And she’s still very sorry for letting go of an F-Bomb when she accepted the Oscar, one of the most heartfelt moments in the otherwise leaden telecast.
“If you know me, then you know (my reaction) was unrehearsed,” she says. “I don’t do improv well. (Winning) was something I never dreamt of. And I was just so honored to be given the award by Kirk Douglas.”
Leo is grateful to be able to enjoy a variety of roles, including that of lawyer Antoinette “Toni” Bernette, who fights for the civil rights of her clients in a post-Katrina New Orleans on HBO’s “Treme” (treh MAY).
“Mostly, the work comes about for me,” she says with a hint of wonder. “It continues to choose me.”