Depending on how militant one is about their definition of “indie,” be it a budgetary classification or a faux-genre product of silent studio partners, Rachel Getting Married will either come across as scathingly honest or morbidly engineered. It’s an unsympathetic drama shot on video, chronicling a massive wedding weekend that’s just short enough on magic and emotional stability to feel true to life.

Its banquet tables are also packed to the walls with showbiz legends (Roger Corman lurks in certain scenes as a camera-wielding guest and Fab Five Freddy makes a toast), brought together by a veteran Hollywood player (director Jonathan Demme), with the whole act resting on a sordidly unflattering performance by a tabloid camera magnet (Anne Hathaway – read interview here).

So let’s forget indie the adjective in favor of others like candid, punishing, and redefining. This is a tough movie to watch. Perhaps not in the nightmarish, remote, Harmony Korine/Larry Clark sense, but whatever empathetic tendencies a viewer keeps will be thoroughly worked over by the time the Big Sigh of an ending plays out.

Hathaway stars as Kym, a done-too-much, much-too-young addict who’s nine months clean. She gets a weekend leave from sober living to attend the marriage of her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) at the family’s Connecticut estate. Notwithstanding the usual whirlwind of arrangements, the issue of Kym’s recovery and the tragedy that kick-started it immediately begin to haunt the occasion.

Demme opted for a handheld approach that is often more poetic and crafted than the term would imply. Fresh off an impossible slate of concurrently shooting documentaries, it’s hard to say whether the creative direction was chosen to suit the material or the director. It appears to have been the right one. Skirting the aural and visual shorthand of Oscar-bait weepers, the style holds the audience at arm’s length from the key players’ internal states. There’s no slow-motion, no soaring anthems, only a few clever cuts and incidental music from a string of guest musicians in a constant state of practice. There’s an element of ambiguity, some would say tension, often lacking from stories like these that all but plot a chart on-screen between humiliation and redemption. Demme knows when to step away and proves the ideal translator for Jenny Lumet’s stringent and noteworthy screenwriting debut.

Then there’s Hathaway, whose dramatic chops aren’t much of a secret since Brokeback Mountain, nor have they been on full display since then. For Rachel Getting Married, she gives a terrifying, unforgettable performance. Beyond the gimmick of sallow features and a DIY chopped-bob haircut is a fascinating portrait of limbo. Kym wants to apologize and punish, to disappear alone into a black hole and simultaneously tell everyone who will listen how unbelievably fucked up she is. Kym’s a self-absorbed, petty, dangerous person who’s just getting a toehold on being an honest, functional member of an extremely dysfunctional family.

Bill Irwin is a welcome surprise in the role of endearing enabler/father –of-the-bride Paul, but the shouting matches turn on Rosemarie DeWitt’s  unsentimental, un-saintly Rachel. The script is very short on exposition and Rachel’s noticeable vacuum of patience for her parasitic little sister speaks volumes.  That the character comes off as a fed-up former protector than a standard-issue raging bridezilla is a credit to DeWitt’s instincts.

In movies, weddings are fodder for comedy. In reality, they’re often battlegrounds behind the scenes, optimal conditions for feelings of guilt, resentment, and rage to flourish. This is the territory in which Rachel Getting Married is invested, and while it’s not traditionally entertaining, it is a daring, moving, and, no pun intended, sobering glimpse of people in crisis, tasked with celebrating when they’re still crystallized in mourning.