Most of the film’s emphasis, however, is on the family that Jois abandoned, especially Sam, whose sweet smile and open face start to seem more haunted as the tale goes on. Much of the first half is about Reed and Sam embarking on a two-person odyssey to find Jois, playing private detective by diving into search engines and questioning friends and relatives (including Jois’ mother and aunt).
It surely didn’t occur to either of the young storytellers that they were doing something that most of their elders wouldn’t be skilled enough or emotionally tough enough to do. But everything about their quest is astounding, including the nerve and faith required to begin on such a journey in the first place; the incisive questions that then-twentysomething Reed asks various interviewees who knew Jois and were destroyed by her disappearance; the raw honesty and perceptiveness of the answers he gets, even from subjects who resist his probing; and most of all, the openness and emotional transparency of his brother, leading man, and best friend Sam.
Young Sam died inside a little when his mother left, and compensated by developing a fearless resilience that could be interpreted as self-armoring numbness when seen in hindsight. The longer the movie goes on, and the older and taller and more physically assured Sam becomes, the more painful it is to look at images of little Sam smiling and laughing, because you know how much pain he was in. “Sam Now” grows into its title in its final third, after Sam has reconnected with his mother and learned that she feels bad about leaving her children and husband but doesn’t regret it, because she felt she was living a lie and need to take a radical step to be happy.
This is a remarkably fair and empathetic work, considering the agony that Jois put her family through. It isn’t prosecutorial, but in its own soft-spoken way, it holds Jois to account. I express regret for the unhappiness she caused but never seeks forgiveness, and there’s a coldness to the way she frames her decision. She often speaks in therapeutic language employed for self-protection by people who wish they felt guilty than they say they do.
But in the end, the movie makes a sincere attempt to understand her, mainly by asking her tell her own story, then considering the parallels, cycles, scandals, and tragedies that recur through different generations of extended families, some of which seem conscious and preventable, and others of which seem as mysteriously inevitable as curses. Jois is a half-Japanese woman who was raised in secret by the birth mother who was ashamed of her, then placed with a white family in Seattle that lives by the credo that a family’s problems are its own and should not be shared with anyone outside , or perhaps even discussed with one another. She was given up by her biological mother, then abandoned her own children, and when Sam is an adult, he admits that he cuts people off suddenly to keep them from getting too close, and tanked a meaningful relationship with a young woman for the same reason.