She also knows that no matter how grave a situation might be, there are always sparks of humor surrounding it. So it's no surprise that her new film, "The Savages," addresses that very subject and does so with a healthy dose of comic perspective.
"I think it's a natural sensibility of mine," the writer-director said. "And I do think that on the underside of tragedy there is this human farce there at the same time. People are pushed to such extremes, and since they're sort of doggy paddling through the situation, they often don't know how to behave. I think that sometimes the behavior is unknowingly kinetic because they're so frayed."
"The Savages" tells the story of middle-aged siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage, who are suddenly forced to care for their estranged father, Lenny, who is left homeless after his girlfriend of 20 years dies. To compound matters, Lenny is sinking further into dementia and can no longer care for himself, leaving them in charge of finding a suitable rest home where he can be properly looked after. Once they do, Wendy handles the chore of taking her father cross-country from New York to Arizona.
Although the situation mirrors much of her own experiences, Jenkins points out this is not an autobiographical story.
"My experience was not exactly like what Jon and Wendy go through," Jenkins said. "I had three other siblings -- I'm not from Buffalo, and I never went to Sun City [the Arizona rest home]. I did fly my father across country, not unlike the movie, and that became a central theme because I didn't realize the gravity of the task when I said, 'OK, we'll take dad across the country.' And it wasn't until I did it that it became clear to me that I really wasn't equipped to handle the intensity of the task, that I was taking care of this person that needed help on such a level that I didn't understand. So thematically that became a big part of the movie."
The catalyst for Jenkins writing her script for "The Savages" was what she saw happening around her several years after her own ordeal.
"What helped bring it to the surface was suddenly my friends started going through this thing that for me happened in isolation, and it then became very relevant," Jenkins revealed.
She was also inspired by a nursing home that she passed daily while walking her dog near her home in New York City: "It was there, but I never noticed it much, like it was a blank space, and then suddenly I began to notice it every day. It started stimulating thoughts about the idea of writing this script, and it also became the model for the nursing home in the movie."
Jenkins first gained notoriety for her critically acclaimed 1998 film "The Slums of Beverly Hills." For her latest production she has assembled a stellar cast that includes Emmy-winner Laura Linney, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tony-winner Philip Bosco.
Although it is never discussed in the film, Jenkins, who is half-Jewish and half-Italian, admits that the father character, Lenny Savage (played to perfection by Bosco), is Jewish: "They were something like a half-breed family. That the father was Jewish and the mother was not, that was my back story for them."
Jenkins hints at Lenny's Judaism during a scene where he is watching "The Jazz Singer" on movie night at the rest home. The scene also reveals things about Lenny's own relationship with his parents. Over the years, Jenkins had seen Bosco several times on stage and was already a big fan of his work.
"I feel so fortunate to have him in that part," she confessed. "I didn't want whoever played him to be the typical old grouch with the twinkle in his eye or some cute version of a difficult old guy. I think, consequently, he's quite sympathetic, even though he's not the greatest guy in the world. I loved his performance."
Jenkins described Bosco's children, played by Linney and Hoffman, as "two mismatched, damaged people who are both in a kind of arrested developed. Even though they're middle age, they really aren't finished people yet, and that makes them very interesting."
When asked if she thinks Jewish families tend to be more dysfunctional than others, she laughingly replied, "No, because I'm half-Italian, and they're pretty dysfunctional too. But there are a lot of similarities between the two. I always say that Jewish people feel guilty, and Italians are filled with shame. It's a hair-splitting distinction."
Perhaps that feeling of guilt that Jenkins attributes to Jews is why the children ultimately do right by their father, regardless of his shortcomings as a parent.
"I think the different cultures deal with it differently, and I think there are cultures particularly that are wearing blinders," she said. "So it will be interesting to see how it functions in the world when it comes out."
Jenkins has attended several screenings of her film and has gotten some heartfelt feedback from audiences.
"The most satisfying response -- and this happened more than once -- is that people will come up and volunteer stories of their own," she said. "This spontaneous outpouring is very intense and moving. And depending on where you are in your life, you respond to different aspects of the movie. It could be about your grandparents or your parents or you. At one of the after-screening Q-and-As, this woman said 'I just put my mother in a home because of Alzheimer's. When the movie started, and I realized what the subject was about, I was scared that I couldn't handle it. But I found it very funny and honest and it made me feel less alone.' That was a good response that made me happy."
She hopes that "The Savages" will help others who are in similar positions: "I think it might be an interesting conversation piece, if people respond to it and will create an environment where people will talk about something that they don't generally talk about, and maybe that will be a healthy thing. It's feeling a sense of community and not feeling isolated. So that would be nice if people came away with that."
Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.