Here's a movie that deals with death and grief without hysterics, dramatic speeches or showy, Oscar-grubbing performances. Michael Winterbottom's Genova has a logline that sounds maudlin and turgid – after she inadvertently causes a car accident that kills her mother, a young girl starts seeing mom's ghost – but the movie turns out to be understated, down-to-earth, quietly sad. This is Winterbottom's most intimate film since 9 Songs, and one of the highlights of his career.

Genova has the wherewithal to show its characters dealing with loss in ways that aren't inherently cinematic. It would have been very striking, for example, to have the newly motherless children – the teenage Kelly (Willa Holland) and the preteen Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) – scream, rage at the world, and slam doors in the face of their well-intentioned father Joe (Colin Firth) before concluding that Family Sticks Together. And in a film like this, I would have guessed that Joe would spiral into an alcoholic depression, or perhaps start a tumultuous, guilt-ridden affair with the old college friend (Catherine Keener) who comes back into his life.

Those are the arcs I would have expected to see. But though a couple doors do get slammed, Winterbottom's characters aren't here to amuse us or push our buttons. Their reactions to the tragedy and their ways of adjusting to a new life in the titular city all paint a much more nuanced picture – and the effect is more heartbreaking than any number of manipulative stunts could have achieved.