Watching movies is frequently a social experience. We sit in theaters or at home with our friends and listen as other people react to what they’re seeing at the same time we do. This experience shapes how we perceive a film by placing it within a specific context – a place, a time, and a particular group of people. (There’s an entire branch of film theory called reception studies, spearheaded by the work of Janet Staiger of the University of Texas at Austin, which studies this very phenomenon.) But there’s something else amazing about cinema: it can also be an intensely personal experience. Great films have the ability to touch each of us in different ways. I’ve found that once in a blue moon, a film comes along that almost seems to speak to me directly; it touches on ideas and emotions that are profoundly personal. Such was the case with Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants.
(Warning: some mild spoilers ahead)
The Descendants is nominally a star vehicle for George Clooney, but I doubt anyone who sees the film will view it in that light. It’s the story of a man named Matt King (Clooney) whose wife is in a coma following a horrific boating accident. The film’s idyllic Hawaiian setting is expertly juxtaposed with the harsh realities of Matt’s life: he is struggling to raise his two daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and rebellious teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley in what should be a star-making performance, if there’s any justice in the world), his wife was cheating on him, and, as he ultimately finds out, the injuries from his wife’s accident are too grave and she’s going to die once they unplug her from life support (which the hospital is legally required to do under the terms of her will).
For me, this story hits straight at the heart; I lived through the death of my own mother when I was ten years old, just like Scottie in the film. As a result of that experience, I tend to be very sensitive to film or TV portrayals of kids who lose a parent, because I know exactly what it feels like. I’m a huge Star Trek fan, but to this day my least favorite episode of any Star Trek series is an episode of The Next Generation called “Hero Worship,” in which a boy’s parents are killed in an accident and he expresses his grief by suppressing his memories and pretending to be just like the emotionless android Data (Brent Spiner), even to the point of changing his appearance and refraining from using contractions (which Data’s programming prevents him from using). It’s a bizarre reaction that is so far outside my own experience that I reject it out of hand. Thankfully, The Descendants suffers from no such irreality.
The Descendants is not the only film that forces me to confront my most powerful memories and emotions. Another is Jonathan Demme’s vastly underrated Rachel Getting Married, which is about a family in crisis on the eve of a wedding. While it doesn’t deal with the death of a family member (it instead focuses on the far-reaching effects of substance abuse), it speaks to me because I remember exactly what it was like going through a family crisis, and I suspect that it would speak to other people for that reason as well.
Going a little further afield, Danish director Susanne Bier’s excellent 2006 film After the Wedding is about a man who find out that a) he has a biological daughter that he never knew about, and b) that the daughter’s adopted father is terminally ill and that the family wants the man to step in to fill the void in her life. This all seems fairly preposterous, or so I thought until I realized that I’ve personally gone through both the experience of losing a parent AND the experience of finding out a long lost relative is actually alive! (Incidentally, After the Wedding was a major influence on Demme when he was making Rachel Getting Married, and it shows.)
These great films all make me relive some of the emotions I felt when I was the grieving ten-year-old, but they also do something fantastic: they help me to work through my feelings in a productive way. They introduce me to new ways of looking at things, and they remind me that there’s a commonality to human experience even if the circumstances of our own personal tragedies are different. Above all, they’re cathartic, and what are we looking for in cinema if not catharsis?
So the question remains: which movies speak to you?