Tag Archives: drama


Lee Daniels’ film Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, is by turns an exhausting and exhilarating mix of utter brutality and exemplary compassion. The whole film is marked by such binaries—Gabourey Sidibe, for instance, who plays the title character, sometimes appears so opaque that her features seem like a painting, frozen in a removed, indecipherable mask of a scowl. At other times, as Precious’s journey moves forward into what one can only hope will be a better future, that stolid countenance begins to crack, as Precious starts to trust people enough to let her emotions register more readily.

This indie film has already garnered a wealth of attention, including a New York Times Magazine cover story on the director and his star, and superlative reviews. I wonder if part of this hoopla signals the eternal voyeurism of a dominant culture that in some prurient way revels in the depravations of the marginal and much less privileged. Scenes of Precious’s home life with her mother, Mary (played by the comedienne Mo’Nique, whose role here couldn’t be farther from humor), reveal a viciousness rarely seen on screen, as routine as it most likely is in some people’s lives. Mary survives on welfare checks that let her hole up in her cave-likeHarlem apartment like a hibernating bear. She does nothing but smoke, drink, and watch television day in and day out, while her anger about her daughter smolders and too often ignites.

Precious, we quickly learn, is now pregnant with her second child by her own father. Director Daniels quickly intercuts scenes of incestuous rape in flash-backs whose fragmented images communicate the older man’s intensity, strength, and refusal to take no for an answer. He throws his daughter violently onto the bed and mounts her, whispering meaningless assertions of love while he sinks deeper into his own desire. In one scene, Mary passes the bedroom door as her boyfriend rapes her daughter, witnessing but not intervening. She perverts her complicity with Precious’s degradation into jealousy that her own man would want Precious instead.

Mary’s bitterness curdles into a sour, palpable antipathy that emanates from the screen like a foul sulphurous cloud. She scowls at her daughter’s back while Precious cooks their dinner, ordering the young girl to serve her as though Precious were a menial and Mary royalty. On impulse, her anger gathers and she lashes out, throwing heavy objects at Precious’s head and viciously sweeping plates onto the floor.

Her sixteen-year-old daughter, adept at ducking and at self-preservation, absorbs with unemotional resolve the blows and the incessant insults about her weight and her stupidity that Mary metes out. Watching those horrific scenes, it’s clear why the young girl’s dark black moon-shaped face, its features crowded together by flesh, has cultivated a mask of indifference. Underneath what looks like passivity, her determination gathers and her instinct for self-protection strengthens.

A sympathetic, overworked white principal in her public school tells Precious she can no longer be a student because of her pregnancy. But the woman refers her to an “alternative school” that enrolls girls in complicated situations, and Precious doggedly pursues the lead, despite her mother’s withering scorn. She finds the school’s offices and puts her fate in the hands of a world-weary African American receptionist who registers Precious and moves her into the system that will ultimately redeem her.

To Daniels’ credit, the road to Precious’s salvation isn’t a foregone conclusion. The movie doesn’t reassure the spectator with the music cues that usually tell us there’s hope, or with predictable plot turns that allow us to follow the story comfortably, reassured that everything will work out in the end. The narrative, in fact, turns unpredictably, and every new character offers the potential to move Precious onto a different branch of her life’s path. Her new teacher—a beautiful, indeterminately ethnic, light-coffee-colored young woman named Blu Rain (Paula Patton)—offers Precious a version of tough love that she’s never felt before, and it takes Precious time to trust that her teacher’s overtures have no ulterior motive.

The other young women in her class are underprivileged but clearly haven’t experienced Precious’s level of degradation. One is a Jamaican immigrant; another is a Latina recovering drug addict; another is, presumably, an African American soft butch lesbian with a scar on her face; and another is an African American would-be fashion model whose own version of hope is so exaggerated and overblown that she manages to infect the other women with her refusal to be browbeaten into defeat. In this company, Precious feels her way, cautiously coming to believe in the safety and care she begins to feel.

Watching Sidibe break Precious open—to love, to literacy, to self-confidence—is one of the most astonishing, moving experiences I’ve ever had during a film. Sidibe handles her implicit empathy with her character’s impossible plight with command and grace, leading us carefully through Precious’s decisions and emotions so that spectators can understand her from the inside out. She privileges us with a view into the soul of a young woman whose size and countenance seems to refuse a common humanity, and lets us see Precious choose to throw in her lot with the rest by choosing to free herself from the hell of her home.

Although Precious knows she’s pregnant, her size masks how far along she is, so her unexpected labor pains make her teachers fearful enough to call an ambulance. At the hospital, where she delivers a healthy baby boy, Lenny Kravitz plays compassionate Nurse John, a man feminized by his profession and by his commitment to organic food, by his warm, level interactions, and by his quiet kind of care. His ministrations affect Precious; when he kisses her good-bye on her forehead, it’s clear she’s rarely experienced simple expressions of kindness or affection. Her school friends crowd her hospital room, flirting with Kravitz and behaving like the teenaged girls they actually are, instead of the jaded women their lives typically force them to perform.

Precious’s first baby by her father has Down syndrome and has been banished, by Mary, to live with Mary’s mother. Mary, who can’t stand the sight of her, calls the baby “Mongo,” short for “Mongoloid.” The sweet girl is friendly and affectionate, cheerful and placid.When Mary’s mother, wary and suspicious of her own daughter, brings the little girl to their Harlem apartment in anticipation of a city social worker’s visit, the three-year-old’s non-discriminating, innocent affect throws into even sharper relief the cruelty in which Precious lives.

Mary wears a wig and dresses up for the occasion, holding the baby on her lap while the clueless social worker spends five minutes in the apartment. When the official leaves, Mary rips off her wig and thrusts the baby out of her arms, her disgust and revulsion for her own family instantly reappearing in her face. But Precious loves her child, and in the simple, occasional narrative voice-overs in which she editorializes on her situation or shares her dreams, the girl admits that she’s determined that Mongo will live with her.

The narration, in fact, is used sparingly, as it provides the only evidence that Precious has a soul determined to survive despite her situation. To Daniels’ credit, he doesn’t rely on his source material for these voice-overs in a heavy-handed way; the film is less literary than it is a stunning visual record of inarticulate fear, longing, and hope, all recorded in the smallest movements of a facial muscle or the sheen of an eye.

[Spoiler alert.]

In one of the film’s most affecting scenes—and there are many—Mariah Carey, as Precious’s sympathetic new case worker, Ms. Weiss, the cruel Mary, and the wary Precious sit together in Ms. Weiss’s small cubicle, as Mary tries to persuade Precious to come home. Mo’Nique’s devastating performance in this scene shows Mary swinging frantically among her conflicting emotions: denial at the damage that’s been wrought on her daughter by Mary’s own boyfriend; anger that Precious has left her to fend for herself, so clearly was Mary dependent on the girl’s labor; fear at being left alone; and fury, still, that her man found her daughter—in her own perverse interpretation of his actions—more sexually desirable than he found her.

All three women sit in the claustrophobic public space, tears running down their cheeks, each crying for their own reasons. Ms. Weiss’s seem to be tears of disbelief, fury, and despair that people like Mary can sink so far into such degradation, and that she can do so little to help. Precious cries because she realizes her mother can never redeem herself, that she’ll never be more than a helpless batterer to whom Precious can never return. And Mary cries because she realizes at some point in her self-serving narrative that she’s not going to win this round; she’s going to walk away empty-handed, because try as she might, she can’t present herself as anything but the monster she is.

In a last ditch attempt to win Precious back, Mary disappears into the agency’s anteroom and returns with Mongo, Precious’s little daughter. Her mother thrusts the baby into Precious’s arms, and Precious finds her resolve. She tells Ms. Weiss that much as she appreciates what she’s done for her, and as much as Precious admits she likes Ms. Weiss (an admission of some consequence for such an emotionally guarded young girl), “you can’t handle me.” Standing to go, she tells Mary that she will never ever see her again. With Mongo’s hand in hers and her little boy on her shoulder, Precious leaves the agency, moving into a crowd of New Yorkers with gritty determination and utter faith in her ability, now, to survive.

Relating the plot makes Precious sound like a television-movie-of-the-week, but the film far exceeds that the stereotype. Daniels intercuts scenes of fantasy with Precious’s reality, especially when the brutality gets extreme and she needs to disassociate. In her parallel universe, she’s got a light-skinned boyfriend on her arm, and she swans through a celebrity’s life, enjoying the literal and figurative spotlight. She dances on a pedestal on a stage, watched by a theatre full of admiring fans; she works a line of screaming acolytes, signing autographs and posing for pictures; she wears satiny long dresses and her hair styled, her make-up sophisticated, a far cry from the worn-out t-shirts and jeans that compose her daily wardrobe.

Daniels films these fantasy sequences as though they’re in Technicolor, with a flat, brassy, two-dimensional color scheme and quick edits that keep the scenes fragmented and fantastical. The film never asks the spectator to reconcile these two versions of its central character. Daniels suggests these two different young women exist side-by-side in Precious’s psyche as near mirror images of one another.

In her real life, Precious is invisible; even Oprah Winfrey, who, with Tyler Perry, is one of the film’s producers, admitted that too often, she didn’t “see” girls like Precious, and vows never to make that mistake again. In the girl’s fantasies, she’s the center of adoring attention, fawned on by fans and doted on by her boyfriend, who always stands behind her, nuzzling her ear and respecting her power. Precious doesn’t really want celebrity, Daniels seems to suggest, but it’s the only image she can hang on to that represents to her what it means to be fully seen, heard, and loved.

Precious’s teachers and advocates truly do love her, as do her fellow students and Nurse John, who takes her under his wing at the hospital. When Precious wins an achievement in literacy award, her school throws a party to which all her newfound friends come.A kinship structure has grown up around Precious, and she’s buoyed and surprised by its warmth. Along with Ms. Weiss, her case worker at the agency, her teacher at the alternative school, Ms. Rain, has been quite affected by Precious. After her son is born, when it’s clear the young girl can’t return to her mother, Ms. Rain takes her home until more permanent temporary housing can be found for Precious and the baby. Ms. Rain lives in a Harlem brownstone with sophisticated ethnic appointments, including a prominently displayed poster of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enough, which graces Precious with its symbolic weight during her visit.

Ms. Rain, as it happens, is a lesbian, and she and her lovely, warm partner regale Precious with stories that fade into a mélange of happy voices as Precious wonders, in her voiceover, at being taken in by “homos.” As the two women drink wine, touch one another lightly and affectionately, and coo over the little baby, Precious looks on in wonderment, as though this is the first time she’s been around people who actually love one another. The moment is moving and revealing, as it’s clear Precious has been influenced by her mother’s prejudices, but finds a grace and generosity of self that quickly helps her reject what she’s learned and embrace the possibility of difference, of kindness, and of love.

The film’s heroes and heroines—like Ms. Rain and her partner and Nurse John—are all light-skinned, complicating the politics of race in the film. In one scene, after Precious has come to trust Ms. Weiss, the case worker (Carey), she asks the woman “what color” she is. She can’t quite read her ethnicity, which, if her name is any indication, is Jewish. Precious is unsophisticated, but she sees something in this woman that reads as “not white” to her, even if it’s just a projection because Mrs. Weiss seems to empathize so strongly with her difference.

I can’t recall a film that’s illustrated such brutality and such compassion in nearly the same breadth. Nor can I recall a film in which the central character has been as complex and compelling as Precious. Watching Precious feels like witnessing a creative virtuosity—the director’s and each of the actors’—that’s tuned into something so real and somehow true, so horrible and somehow redemptive, that you can’t look away. And that, it seems, is the film’s plea: that we see girls like Precious, instead of seeing through them or refusing to look at all.

The Feminist Spectator

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Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s quiet, devastating film is a character study with social resonance that requires very few words to deliver its story and its critique. Little dialogue intrudes as the Reichardt, who directed and edited, notes the most prosaic moments of an ordinary life and somehow turns them into a sad comment on what it means to be poor and female and trying to live with very few choices available to make it all work.

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) sleeps in her car with her dog, Lucy. She’s traveling fromMuncie, Indiana, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to look for work at the Northwestern Fisheries cannery that she’s heard pays well and comes with room and board. Wendy is deliberate, calm, and careful. She traces out her route on her wrinkled map with a yellow highlighter and writes down each of her expenses as she accounts for her rapidly diminishing financial reserves. Wendy is also young; flowery doodles illustrate her record-keeping in her spiral notebook.

But the young woman’s admirable resourcefulness is clear. When she encounters groups of other people traveling together, she’s wary and watchful, gleaning information but revealing nothing. She’s steeled herself for this trip, wearing a money belt Velcro-ed around her waist and carrying her belongings in the trunk of her car.

When her old car breaks down, Wendy’s fortunes begin to down shift even further. A gentle, middle-aged night watchman guarding the empty Walgreen’s lot where Wendy parks overnight in a small town in Oregon wakes her to force her to move the car. When she turns the ignition, it won’t start, so she and the guard push it to the curb, where Wendy waits for daylight and for the garage across the street to open.

She finds the last crumbs of dog food stashed in the trunk for Lucy, who laps them up gratefully but clearly wants more. In fact, Wendy’s sense of responsibility for her dog propels her through the film even more than her desire to get where she can find work that will let them both survive. Lucy is her only companion; Wendy’s love for her sustains them both. The mixed-breed dog is valiant and faithful, thrilled to chase the sticks Wendy throws and patient as Wendy goes about her human tasks.

Her determination to care for Lucy gets Wendy into the jam that slowly unravels her precarious mobile stability. As she waits for her car to be fixed, Wendy trolls the aisles at a local market, carefully shoplifting. She pockets a bread roll for herself and later, when she’s busted on her way out of the store by Andy (John Robinson), a sanctimonious young grocery clerk, he pulls two cans of Iams dog food from her bag. Her choice of premium canned food makes the risk she’s taken that much more touching, and her capture that much more pathetic.

When Andy presents Wendy’s theft to his boss, Reichardt stages a scene that demonstrates the sticky complications of being poor and the levels of righteousness that distinguish people’s places on the economic ladder. Andy—who’s young enough to be picked up after work by his station wagon-driving mother—implores his reluctant boss to follow procedure and call the police. Andy insists that anyone who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog, emphasizing that if they make an exception for Wendy, their shoplifting prohibition is meaningless.

The boss, looking small behind his desk, wavers. He’s clearly embarrassed by the situation but lets Andy bully him into calling the police. As she’s driven off, Wendy explains that her dog is tied up outside the store. The cop doesn’t care. Through the rear-view window, Reichardt frames Lucy waiting on her leash, looking into the grocery store as Wendy is taken away and booked.

Williams’ performance as Wendy is so understated and true that she barely lets her irritation register on her face, even as she withstands the ineptitude of the young officer who books her and has to consult the manual to work the station’s computerized fingerprinting machine. You can see from the clench of Williams’ jaw and her surreptitious glances at the police station clock that she’s anxious to return to Lucy, but Wendy is a woman practiced at hiding her needs and her feelings.

The young white officer and the older African American woman who process her aren’t particularly nasty. Reichardt clarifies in simple strokes that no one individual is responsible for how the law or the economy binds and controls and constrains each of them differently.None of them band together to change anything, but they each suffer how things are from within their own proscribed roles, adhering to the rules of a game none of them have devised. No animosity flows between people in Wendy and Lucy, just a general resignation with the fact that everyone’s doing the best they can.

Only the security guard (Walter Dalton) breaks through proscription to reach out to Wendy.His job requires him to make her leave the Walgreen’s lot, but the guard can’t help but talk to her and try to help her out. He tells her about a nice, clean hotel not far from the store and describes the way to the pound when Lucy is lost. He clearly comes to care about her, even though they know nothing about one another.

In one of the film’s many small, finely wrought and poignant moments, the security guard comes to find Wendy in the lot on his day off, and passes her some money on the quiet, as the woman waiting for him in his car fixes her make-up. “I don’t want her to know about it,” the security guard explains, insisting Wendy not refuse his gift. When he drives away, Wendy looks down at the cash in her hand and counts out a five dollar bill and a few singles. The man has little more than Wendy, but he’s rich with humanity.

After she’s arrested for shoplifting, pays a $50 fine for her misdemeanor that she can’t afford, and is released, Wendy runs back to the grocery store. Lucy isn’t there, and no one knows where the dog has gone. The security guard suggests the pound and Wendy trudges off to look there for Lucy. The clerk at the animal shelter is kind, but Wendy’s sad tour through the kennels doesn’t turn up her dog. Instead, the camera tracks Wendy walking past other caged and desperate creatures, some barking hopefully at the bars of their cages, others retreated into the inner chambers of their small spaces, peering out warily and without hope.

The parallel is clear—at least the dogs get food, water, and a roof over their heads as they wait out their fates, some with hope and determination, and others with sorrowful acceptance. Wendy stays one step ahead of homelessness. She washes herself in a gas station restroom, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her increasing deprivation. But losing Lucy means doing without her lifeline. Wendy’s car, which proves much more expensive to fix than she can afford, is easier to abandon. But life without her dog is too lonely to bear.

Wendy and Lucy’s script—based on the short story “Train Choir” by Jon Raymond—is never predictable and never sentimental. The film doesn’t ask the spectator to pity the characters, but to see them instead as human beings struggling with whatever limited means they can muster, each in his or her own way. The world Wendy and Lucy paints isn’t easy or kind—it’s lonely, hard, and sad, with little to remediate the economic blight and emotional benightedness the film depicts unremittingly.

But the elegant photography and eloquent editing—and Williams’ impressive, powerful acting—tell a sympathetic story about the people it depicts, not as a mess of psychological trouble and relational woe, but as individuals grinding out the only lives they can, given the poverty of their class and the paucity of possibility provided by the shopworn American dream.

The Feminist Spectator

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Nurse Jackie

This new Showtime series stars Edie Falco as a wry, knowing, harried emergency room nurse. The show offers a terrific vehicle for the versatile actor, as a well-written, smart and funny situation-based character study that takes advantage of Falco’s intelligent, restrained emotional presence and her quirky humor. Unlike network doctor dramas like ER, women characters propel Nurse Jackie’s narratives. Jackie begins each episode with a brief voice-over remark, and then the story continues from her perspective.

Jackie’s best friend at work is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), an elegant Brit whose arrogance is matched by her intelligence and wit. The upstairs/downstairs aspect of their friendship provides lots of comic fuel—O’Hara often refers casually to how much she spent on various items of clothing, from her $1,200 scarf to her almost as expensive silk stockings.Jackie and her bar-owning husband clearly pinch pennies to make it through their week.Jackie rolls her eyes at her friend’s profligacy, but her indulgence of O’Hara’s class idiosyncrasies emphasizes their bond as women in a professional environment skewed to favor men.

Pompous and powerful male doctors are represented here by Dr. “Coop” Cooper (Peter Facinelli), an Ivy League grad who struts into the ER with a blimp-size ego that Jackie promptly deflates when Coop’s misdiagnosis—against Jackie’s instincts—causes a young patient’s death. After the first few episodes, Jackie’s frequent corrections seem to be bringing Coop into line; he’s cultivating his human side and considering his patients’ emotional needs. In a recent episode he lavished rather sweet attention on an elderly woman on one of her regular trips to the ER from a nursing home. Coop adjusts her wig and compliments her vanity while writing her scrips, even though when she soon expires, he’s out by the nurses’ station boasting of how skillfully he handled his first gunshot wound patient a few curtains down.

Facinelli plays Coop with a dollop of humility and lots of magnanimity, although even he seems uncomfortable with the character’s odd, unconscious tendency to grab women’s breasts when he’s anxious (a completely gratuitous quirk that says more about the producers’ anxiety about the women characters’ strength than Coop’s). This week’s episode revealed that Coop is the son of lesbian parents (deliciously played by Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner), a plot twist that also particularizes and humanizes a character who could be a too stereotypically thoughtless and self-involved heel. O’Hara, in fact, looks at Coop differently once she realizes he has two mothers; the information makes him more than a run-of-the-mill, ambitious male doc.

Nurse Jackie draws all of Jackie’s relationships with men in refreshing, slightly off-beat ways. She’s married to a sweet guy who cares for their two young daughters while he runs the bar they own in Queens. But at work, Jackie removes her wedding band, closets her family life, and carries on a regular sexual liaison with the hospital’s pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze). He not only services her physically (with Jackie always literally on top) but keeps her stocked in the painkillers that make long days of walking hard floors possible. Jackie’s back seems seriously compromised, but the painkillers come with an addiction problem. She snorts Percocet and other opiates in doses small enough to let her function, but regularly enough that her drug use has to become an issue down the narrative line.

Jackie’s secrets, though, keep the character complicated. She never slides into the self-abnegating golden-hearted-but-gruff nurse stereotype that lurks just around the corner of this story. So far, the show avoids that pitfall, gilding Jackie’s essential goodness with enough sardonic cynicism to keep her from being a simple saint. Her first-year student nurse, Zoey (Merritt Wever), offers her a useful foil, as Zoey delivers the platitudes about wanting to help people that drives some idealistic young women and men into nursing in the first place.

Put up against Jackie’s unsentimental pragmatism, Zoey’s enthusiasm plays as funny but not quite ridiculous. The character could easily be the butt of facile jokes—Zoey is a bit chunky, not conventionally beautiful, and too open and cuddly for what proves the ER’s more cut-throat environment. But instead, she gets her own sharp edges. Wever’s loose physicality gives Zoey embodied, character-driven humor; for instance, when O’Hara blithely walks off with Zoey’s new stethoscope, the young nurse’s attempts to retrieve it provide Wever with moments of stuttering explanation and stealthy borrowings that show off Zoey’s agency and nascent power, instead of belittling her as inept.

Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman), Jackie’s nursing colleague, unfortunately bears the burden of race and sexuality in the narrative, a load too heavy for any one actor to carry easily. Sleiman’s features are ethnically ambiguous (his character’s full name is Mohammed de la Cruz), allowing him fill the “colored” slot in the character list, and his slightly fey, gentle presence and willingness to give Zoey fashion advice betray his gayness. Although his easy relationship with Jackie gives Sleiman and Falco some nice moments, so far, Mo-Mo represents still another gay person of color serving the development of the far more centralized white characters, a narrative strategy we could by now all do without.

On the other hand, Anna Deveare Smith makes regular appearances as Mrs. Akalitus, a nurse-turned-hospital administrator now charged with guarding the bottom line. The character is a hard-assed factotum, but Smith brings her, too, subtle off-beat humor. When she borrows what she thinks is a packet of Jackie’s sugar, and unknowingly gets high on the painkillers Jackie has ground up and put into the packet instead, Smith’s performance as the suddenly high and goofy administrator is priceless.

In another episode, Akalitus finds a taser gun lying in the corridor. After she shouts with anger to no one in particular about how irresponsible it is to leave such things lying around, she gets on an elevator and prompting stuns herself with the gun. Her electrified pratfall is hilarious. Watching Smith, who usually plays the steely, powerful, alpha female roles in films and television shows, play a comic character role makes me admire her acting even more.

Many terrific New York-based actors play the ER’s patients and visitors, offering keenly observed turns as the sick and dying and their families. The situations into which they’re written, however, are often predictable and run to stereotypes. For example, in Episode #3, Lynn Cohen is on hand as an elderly Jewish woman who tends to her dying husband’s heart disease with chicken soup. Their scenes are saccharine and lachrymose, their Jewish accents wearying echoes of vaudeville sketches about Jews and their magic ministrations that should be put to rest soon.

Likewise, the Latina mother whose son’s lung collapsed in a playground accident speaks with a thick accent, and her other son is excessively emotionally expressive; the elderly white woman who’s regularly delivered to the ER from her nursing home is vain about her appearance; the tourists from the Mid-West are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and apologize for everything (even though the woman turns out to be an opium addict, offering a neat mirror for Jackie’s developing habit); and an international diplomat savagely murders a prostitute but can’t be touched, thanks to his legislated immunity. Jackie navigates these characters and their issues deftly, always looking out for the well-deserving underdog and wreaking what vengeance she can on the powerful and evil. But they still remain vehicles in which to drive her character, rather than truly interesting people of their own.

Nurse Jackie swivels from wistful and wry to parodic and satirical fairly quickly. For instance, when Jackie and her husband Kevin attend a meeting at their daughter Grace’s school, the teacher, the school psychologist, and the school nurse are played in high farce and shot from camera angles that make them appear large and confrontational to the prosaic, confused Jackie and Kevin. But the small family’s scenes at home are wistfully realist, as the girls cuddle with Kevin on their parents’ bed watching television while they wait for Jackie to come home at night. The combination of exaggerated and earnest works, asNurse Jackie’s sharp humor oscillates between its poignant observations about the proximity of death to life and its insights about how we navigate all those moments in between.

The Feminist Spectator

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Frozen River

Courtney Hunt’s film Frozen River is a quietly moving examination of lives blinkered by poverty in a small town in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border. As the local economy withers away, residents of the town and those on the nearby Mohawk reservation turn to illegally smuggling immigrants into the country as a way to turn a quick buck.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman whose husband has run off with the balloon payment due on the double-wide trailer they’ve been saving to buy. The film starts with Ray sitting in the passenger seat of her car, wearing a worn, pink chenille bathrobe. The car is parked outside her rusty single-wide mobile home, which sits precariously, isolated on an abandoned, grassless lot in the middle of the nowhere where the surrounding town is already dying.

The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Ray’s face, scrutinizing every pore and inch of her rough red skin, worn from smoke and worry. Unexpected tears suddenly spill out of her eyes, while she blows smoke from her mouth.Her tears flow without a drop of self-pity; they release something that lets her pull herself together and go back into the house to attend to her two sons. T.J., the teenaged boy (Charlie McDermott), watches over his five-year-old brother; he can’t bear to see him suffer the disappointments T.J. already knows are in store. The younger boy lives happily ignorant of their poverty, as both Ray and T.J. struggle to keep his world intact.

At the film’s start, Ray’s husband has just left, and not for the first time. While the boys are in school, she goes to look for him at the Bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk reservation, where wary locals refuse to help her. In the parking lot, Ray sees Lila, a young Native woman, driving her husband’s car.When Ray confronts her, Lila says she found it with the keys in it at the bus station, and later mentions she saw the car’s owner getting on a southbound bus. Ray knows her husband is headed to Atlantic City; she also knows the money is irretrievably gone.

Ray’s initial interactions with Lila play out in icy recriminations, as neither woman has much sympathy for the other. Their equally desperate straits make them natural competitors, but they’re both smart enough to realize they’d be better off as collaborators. The car holds value for Lila, because she needs a vehicle to participate in a smuggling ring that shepherds illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River, frozen solid in the bitter winter. Once they see that they can help one another, they strike up a situational relationship of convenience. How it changes propels the film into surprising emotional territory.

Lila is implacably calm about the smuggling operation into which she initiates Ray. Lila knows everything: how much it costs to be smuggled into the States; how long the immigrants have to work until they pay off their debt to the people who bring them in; how much time you have to serve if you get caught running an illegal; and how much they make for each smuggling run. But Lila needs a car and she also needs someone who can see. Her ill-fitted glasses are too uncomfortable to wear. But she worries that the smugglers will cheat her, and makes sure that Ray counts their money at the beginning and end of every trip.

Lila lives in circumstances even more humble than Ray’s; her trailer is a one-room camper, abandoned in deep, snow covered woods. An unexplained crime has destroyed Lila’s reputation on the reservation. Something happened that resulted in her young husband’s death, which prompts the tribal council to collude with Lila’s mother-in-law to take away Lila’s one-year-old child. Lila watches the baby, hiding in the bushes outside her mother-in-law’s house, leaving money for them in potato chip canisters she quietly props by their door.

Because Ray has the car and Lila has the knowledge, the two women make a business deal. They drive together across the frozen river to still another ramshackle mobile home, rolling across the ice to where the smuggler keeps illegal immigrants waiting to be ferried into the U.S. Ray and Lila load two of these people into their trunk at a time and drive back on the ice to the unwatched border. When they get off the river, they drive through a portion of the route watched by a state trooper. The tensest moment of the trip is when they look to see if he follows. Lila tells Ray bitterly on their first trip, “He won’t stop you, you’re white.”

Throughout the film, Ray forces herself into situations in which she’s singular—the only white woman, the only working mother, the only woman who’s not a stripper or an alien in the Canadian club they visit in the film’s climactic scene to collect their last load of illegal immigrants. She handles herself with incredible resolve and aplomb, once she decides to participate. She and Lila clear $600 for each trip they make; the money is generous and easy for someone who works long hours, standing on her feet for a minimum wage that amounts to much less.

Unsavory men run the smuggling operation. One is a hirsute, brutal Canadian who owns the strip club; the other is the long-haired Native man in the trailer on the river, who takes one look into Ray’s car and tells Lila, “I don’t like to deal with white women.” But Ray needs the money and can’t afford to bristle at the racism she suffers. After all, Ray is racist, too.

Hunt’s film carefully calibrates the dual oppressions of being poor and white or Native American in a country in which there are fewer and fewer social service nets. Without her husband, Ray needs to earn twice as much. But she works as a clerk at the local Dollar Value store, where her manager is an unctuous much younger white man who refuses to put her on the schedule fulltime after she’s worked dependably for two years. But he lets another, younger, prettier female employee come in late and keep much more lax work habits. Ageism also works against Ray and her struggle to feed her kids.

T.J. complains about eating popcorn and drinking Tang for breakfast and dinner. Ray searches for coins in the couch pillows, meting out the few quarters and dimes she can scrape together so that the boys can buy themselves lunches at school. T.J. wants to leave high school and get a job, but Ray insists he continue his education. She’s steely in her resolve that he’ll do better, that he’ll somehow transcend the circumstances in which she’s raising him.

Ray hasn’t yet acquiesced to her situation. Every act is motivated by her dream of buying the double-wide trailer with three bedrooms, a Jacuzzi in the master, and wall-to-wall carpeting. At the film’s start, the new house is being delivered on a flatbed truck that pulls right up to the field where the old one sits, desolate. But since her husband has absconded with the cash, Ray doesn’t have the final payment. The angry trailer salesman drives the truck off, telling her he won’t come out again.

Ray wants that home. The film respects that the double-wide is the apogee of the better life toward which she can stride. Frozen River isn’t a fairy tale. But its clear-eyed understanding of Ray and Lila’s plight insures that we don’t pity either character. Their part of upstate New York is forsaken and barren, but it has a brutal, chilled beauty that makes the landscape look like a Catherine Opie painting of strangely symmetrical, subtly colorful ice-fishing huts on a frozen lake.

Ray isn’t asking for hand-outs; she isn’t even really blaming her husband. She understands he’s sick: “He has an addiction,” she tells her son with clenched teeth. They settle in at the end of their evenings to have important conversations as they look beyond one another, staring at the television while they talk about how they’re going to get through the next day.

The son substitutes for his father, even though he, too, is still a child. T.J. makes crank calls to swindle unsuspecting elderly people out of $29 and their credit card numbers, telling them they’ve been left an inheritance for which he needs their information to process the small fee before he releases their windfalls. His own anxious ploy for cash preys on the desperation of the people he reaches, extending the cycle of poverty and despair and determination to survive by your wits.

T.J. isn’t scamming for drug money or alcohol, or anything about which a young boy with slightly more means might scheme. He’s trying to pitch in, since Ray won’t let him pull his weight and work for the few dollars of extra cash that might mean real food on their plates. Ray has rented a flat-screen television from a place called “Rent to Buy.” When the store calls to say if she doesn’t make her payment, they’re coming to take it away, T.J. frantically plots to find the money, so that his little brother won’t be left without his meager entertainment. These quotidian crises propel this drama, and yet they generate surprisingly ominous suspense.

Hunt produces a narrative that could be told much more conventionally. For instance, when a state trooper comes to their trailer at the film’s end, looking for T.J., a different sort of film-maker could succumb to cliché and have him haul the boy to jail. In Frozen River, the officer brings along the elderly woman T.J. swindled, asking only that the boy apologize face to face for what he did and that he not do it again. The law here isn’t the enemy—the troopers (including Michael O’Keefe, nicely underplaying as the officer whose interactions with Ray over the course of the story determine her fate) find themselves employed among people whose actions are motivated by the extremity of their poverty, not by evil.

Likewise, Ray’s future comes as no surprise, but how it’s handled is humane and forgiving. For someone managing such a hard-scrabble life, she finds reserves of compassion and understanding that model a hopeful extension of conventional kinship systems across race, ethnicity, and class. On the other hand, Ray isn’t portrayed a saint. She deflects any empathy she might receive from the other characters as well as from spectators. On one of their smuggling trips, Ray carries a Pakistani couple in her trunk, a man and a woman who have a duffle bag they insist Ray and Lila carry inside the car. Ray doesn’t know what “Paki” means when Lila refers to their passengers, or where Pakistan is when Lila explains.

The mysterious package makes Ray uneasy, and she decides to leave it on the icy river halfway through the trip. When they arrive at the roadside motel where the illegal immigrants are passed along to the next operative in the seedy smuggling ring, delivered into a life of servitude working for the people who bring them over, the Pakistani couple is distraught about the abandoned bag.For good reasons, Ray and Lila return to the river in the glacial cold of a very dark night to retrieve it.

Ray makes mistakes; she’s not worldly; she’s racist; she has a gun and she’s more than willing to use it. But her innate intelligence and her sharp survival skills make her a compelling, moving study in economic determination. Leo’s performance—for which she received a richly deserved Academy Award nomination—is unsparing and vulnerable. She brings a transparency to her performance that lets you see Ray deliberately make each of her impossible decisions, and track her commitment to seeing them through.

Leo registers the injustices she confronts with bitter knowledge, but never with self-pity. There’s no wallowing in her performance as Ray, just a deep willingness to bring this woman dignity and finally, understanding. Each of the central performances is equally unsparing and natural. Misty Upham, as Lila, has the same blank affect as Elaine Miles, the Native American woman who played Marilyn on the television series Northern Exposure in the early 1990s.Lila is perhaps a bit of a stereotype, as the unemotional, inexpressive Native American who nonetheless observes and comments dryly but perceptively.

But the character’s back-story and her uneasy relationship to the Mohawk territory where she clearly lives as an outsider lets Lila exceed stock. Her determination to retrieve the baby that was stolen from her fuels her own trips back and forth across the border. One of her most painful scenes shows her holed up in her tiny, snow encrusted camper, startled awake when the container in which she’s been leaving money for her mother-in-law and her baby is thrown against her thin tin door with all her money still rolled up inside.

Frozen River details the kind of desperation that drives good people to do bad things. The movie is as suspenseful as a James Bond film, but the drama here is all about the struggle to survive and the most human of emotions. When a connection is finally made, no one lives happily every after, but they do manage to pool their wits and their wiles enough to survive. For these two disenfranchised women and three young boys, that’s admirable enough.

The Feminist Spectator

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