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The Kids are All Right

In addition to being the best movie about lesbians I’ve seen in a long time, The Kids are All Right is a beautifully written and filmed, evocative, deeply funny, and deeply felt story about relationships in general. To say the film is about a couple who “happen to be lesbians” would completely miss the point, even though part of what makes it notable is that the leading couple’s sexuality is so completely taken for granted.

But director/co-writer (with Stuart Blumberg) Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon), for whom the story is apparently in part inspired by her own autobiography, understands that in 2010, being a lesbian family still requires work, gumption, patience, and ultimately, forgiveness. Lesbian parents are as imperfect as any, but they’re still not exactly “normal” enough. Their striving to make the kids be all right takes emotional and physical diligence that the film evokes specifically and honestly.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have been together long enough to raise 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson), kids they each bore using the same sperm donor.When Laser has pangs of father-longing, he asks his older sister to track down their donor, and emotional complications ensue when Paul (Mark Ruffalo) turns out to be a charismatic, free-spirited organic farmer/restaurateur.

Each of the five characters are complicated enough that how they’ll respond to the awkwardness of their situation is never predictable. Some of the film’s comedy comes from the surprising variety of character reactions, but then, so does its melancholy. Nic and Jules’s long-term relationship is rocky under its smoothly functioning veneer, and both women have sacrificed in ways they don’t even begin to realize until Paul’s presence shakes up their lives.

Nic, the perfectionist OB-GYN who has a bit of a drinking problem, harasses Jules about her lack of focus and ambition, even as Nic’s position funds Jules’s new landscape architecture business. Jules is more artistic and freewheeling, but she’s not unaware of her own psychic complexities. When she and Nic fight about Jules’s flightiness, Jules accuses Nic of having wanted a stay-at-home wife to raise their kids, observing that Nic never really wanted Jules to work. Both women describe their long-term relationship as a marriage, which feels poignant and right in their situation, even in the face of California’s political change of heart about the legality of gay unions.

In other words, Nic and Jules suffer the problems that crop up in most long-term committed relationships, as well as those that plague parents of most teenagers. [Spoiler alert.] Joni, who’s about to leave for college, starts the painful process of separating from her moms, encouraged by Paul’s rule-flouting, easy-going manner. Nic and Jules’s relationship is strained when the kids and Jules take to Paul, and Jules, whom he’s hired to redesign and replant his backyard, finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him sexually. Paul’s appearance provokes a major transition, but happily (for Cholodenko’s story and for us), the bonds between these two women and their kids are only strengthened by the end.

Each of the performances is pitch-perfect. Bening’s face registers each of Nic’s conflicting emotions with a vulnerable openness that refuses to hide anything from the camera, even as Nic tries to hide her feelings from her family. Bening is a remarkable actor—her work here, and with a very different character in Rodrigo Garcia’s filmMother and Child earlier this summer, demonstrates her emotional intelligence as well as her range. Bening plays across the spectrum of human emotion with particular insight into what it means to be a middle-aged, upper-middle class white woman with a complicated set of desires and longings, ambitions and expectations.

Moore plays Jules with a physical looseness and verve that she rarely has occasion to enjoy on screen. As Jules, Moore struggles with how to organize her separate life, but is utterly confident about the importance and centrality of her commitment to Nic and her family. Moore plays Jules’s surprise as she falls into bed with Paul with unbridled excitement and a devilish joy. But when Paul falls in love with her and calls her to spin out a fantasy in which he and Jules will run away with the kids and be their own family, she’s absolutely clear that she’s a lesbian who’s already taken: Moore grimaces at his suggestion, hangs up on Paul, and throws the phone away in comic irritation.

Ruffalo plays Paul as a sexy teddy bear of a boy-man, who’s successful with his restaurant because it allows him to play in the dirt all day, eating vegetables he picks off the vine, and dream up recipes to please his customers at night. Ruffalo is hairy in all the right ways as Paul, sporting a scruffy graying stubble and wearing blue jeans and denim shirts open to his navel. He’s an earthy guy, who’s managed certain accomplishments despite dropping out of school (because he found it boring), a good-time type with no commitments to drag him down.

To accentuate his hip-and-grooviness, Paul rides a motorcycle. When he gives young Joni a tour through the streets of LA en route to bringing her home to her moms, the scene evokes the thrill of the forbidden for Joni and prompts unsurprising consequences. Nic, the family disciplinarian, is furious. Paul tells her she just has to “chill out,” a suggestion thrown at Nic more than once throughout the story.

What makes the rather uptight Nic complex and endearing is that she tries to ease up. She suggests a family dinner at Paul’s house, where she makes a huge effort to get on board with Paul’s magnetism and appreciate it with the rest of her captivated family. Over dinner, Nic and Paul discover that they’re both Joni Mitchell fans.Bening plays a hilarious extended scene in which she sings “All I Want” (one of Mitchell’s harder songs to capture a capella) off key and off tempo, with her eyes closed, while the rest of her family winces with affection. This is Nic going out on a limb—the perfectionist willing, for the sake of her family, to do something she’s bad at to make herself human.

In the film’s only predictable moment, Nic leaves that dinner table to use Paul’s bathroom, where, of course, she finds Jules’s hair in his brush and his shower drain, and proceeds to check out his bedroom, where she finds Jules’s hair on his nightstand. Bening transforms from a generous, affectionate mom trying hard to fathom her brood’s attraction for a man she finds unworthy into a cuckolded mate whose realization that she’s been cheated on happens in the presence of her wife’s paramour. Bening plays the wrenching moment with sadness, subtlety, and a whole lot of heart.

Paul hasn’t really grown up. In some ways, he becomes the family’s third child, making goofy faces as scenes end on shots of him reacting to his unusual circumstances. When Laser asks him why he became a sperm donor, Paul tells him he thought it’d be more fun than donating blood. When Laser looks hurt, Paul begins to realize that his actions have consequences for which he’s being asked to take responsibility.

But when he falls in love with Jules, he thinks he can become a man by adopting another woman’s family, and that’s where Cholodenko and Blumberg make sure to underline that he’s wrong. Paul’s biological connection to Joni and Laser gives him no rights; even though Jules, early on, tells him that she sees her kids’ expressions in his face, his DNA doesn’t trump 18 years of child-rearing. Nic finally thwarts his growing desire to move in on her lesbian household, kicking him out and telling him to go make a family of his own.

The Kids are All Right could easily have been about Paul’s redemption, his transition from an unattached boy-toy into a serious co-parent. Happily, Cholodenko and Blumberg avoid that too-conventional plot line. Paul is changed by meeting Nic and Jules and their kids, much more than he changes them, but he doesn’t, in the end, get what he wants, and it’s finally not clear if he’s even learned anything about hiimself.

Each character in The Kids are All Right has their own trajectory, and the script doesn’t favor one over any of the others. Joni (named after Joni Mitchell), who’s on her way to college, precipitates the family crisis not just by contacting Paul, but by becoming an adult who’s leaving their cozy nest. Joni’s hyper-sexual girlfriend, Brooke (Rebecca Lawrence), provides a nice contrast to Joni’s more upright, moral attitude. Joni is also friends with a lovely, sensitive boy, Jai (Kunal Sharma), to whom she’s sexually attracted but hasn’t yet touched.

Her heterosexual awakening is a sweet subplot and never becomes didactic; that is, Cholodenko doesn’t use Joni to reassure spectators that lesbian mothers can raise heterosexual kids. At the same time, it’s Joni who, in frustration after they learn of Jules and Paul’s affair, complains that she’s done everything “right,” that she got good grades and got into all the schools she applied to, all to prove that she’s from a good lesbian family. The burden of being exemplary, Cholodenko suggests, is heavy for those who grow up in less conventional ways.

Laser has a boyfriend, too, and part of the film’s early comedy is about his moms’ suspicions that he might be gay. In fact, the Laser’s friend, Clay (Eddie Hassell), is a moronic guys’ guy, who serves to show off how innately sweet and, well, feminist Laser is by comparison. After jumping from a garage roof on his skateboard and smashing his arm on the dumpster below, Clay decides to pee on the head of a stray dog he and Laser meet in an alley. Laser protects the animal; Clay punches his friend; Laser spits blood from his lip and exits the friendship.

Whatever Laser might have idealized about a relationship with a “dad” also doesn’t transpire. In one of Cholodenko’s smartest choices, Paul is something of a loser as a male role model. Playing basketball with Laser, Ruffalo is hilarious as Paul flubs various moves and throws and never makes a basket, while Laser shoots and scores effortlessly. Paul’s affair with Jules makes him morally and ethically suspect for the rest of the family (Joni tells him she wishes he’d been “better”), but he somehow expects that Laser will side with him. Peering in the window at the family dinner table after Nic has dressed him down for the last time, Paul tries to gain Laser’s favor by shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes as though none of what’s transpired is really a big deal. Lazer storms away from the table (and out of Paul’s view) and throws away his food in disgust.

Another of the film’s pleasures is the wonder of watching two stunningly attractive middle-aged actors who seem to have avoided face lifts and Botox injections. Bening and Moore are beautiful women who don’t conform to conventional standards of too-youthful, too-thin, too-vapid American white female attractiveness. Bening (who’s 52) is a mature woman with crows’ feet around her eyes and wrinkles on her neck that make her look even more gorgeous (in my opinion. And the sculpted triceps evident when Nic wears a sleeveless denim shirt on a trip to the hardware store look pretty good, too).

Moore (who’s 50) wears her freckles proudly, and her body, too, seems lived in and comfortably real (though very natural-looking and frankly, spectacular). Jules wears low-slung jeans and purple thong underwear (which Paul admires as Jules bends over to work in his yard), but she looks like a middle-age woman who’s arty and lives in LA. Jules’s red hair is never quite coiffed, but just worn. And although Nic is a successful OB-GYN with a spiky, short haircut, she wears jeans and jackets and signature black Converse sneakers that flatter her beauty but don’t hide the very normal size of Bening’s middle-aged body. Nic and Jules might wear the casual clothes and leather bands and chokers and silver jewelry of upper-class white LA lesbians, but they aren’t L Word women (or, god forbid, The Real L Word women); they’re mature, smart, and work hard at their lives.

Cholodenko and Blumberg’s script captures with humor and insight what might be most different about lesbian relationships and parenting: the over-analyzing, over-sharing, and over-speaking that’s somehow typical (not to be essentialist about this) of some women who love one another and raise kids together. Some of the movie’s funniest dialogue is delivered by Nic and Jules when they’re trying to reach out to their kids. For example, when they suspect Laser is gay, they both go on about how he can talk to them and trust them. When Laser and Clay discover the moms’ cache of gay male porn, Laser asks why they watch men instead of women, and Jules delivers a hilarious explanation that’s funny not because it’s wrong, but because it’s so truthful.

Jules says that women’s sexuality is internal, which means that sometimes it’s fun to see sexuality externalized. And, she explains, in Moore’s deliberate, generous, too open delivery, lesbian porn is often cast with straight women, which makes it inauthentic. (Some might say the same about The Kids are All Right, since Bening and Moore are straight; I’d disagree. In fact, Moore’s speech in this scene might be Cholodenko’s wry dig at that inevitable complaint.) Watching Jules offer too much information to her young straight son in an attempt to be a good, honest lesbian parent is a hysterical, perfectly on target social observation.

The film’s one misstep is its treatment of Jules’s Latino garden assistant, Luis (Joaquín Garrido), who understands that she and Paul are having an affair. His face registers the pleasure of his knowledge when their liaison dawns on him, which Jules misreads as judgment. She summarily fires him, archly telling him she won’t reconsider. The poor guy loses his job in the story, and in the film, the character’s reactions and speech are racially stereotyped in ways that seem gratuitous.

Of course, what makes The Kids are All Right remarkable is that it’s a mainstream film about a lesbian family (a white, upper-middle class lesbian family in LA, that is) with big-name stars, and that means a lot at this particular moment in history. Kathy Wolfe, the founder and CEO of the LGBT video distribution company, Wolfe, in her editorial in theadvocate.com, calls the movie the lesbian Brokeback Mountain, since it stars major Hollywood actors and has achieved wide distribution (by Focus Features, which also released Brokeback and Milk). But where Brokeback addressed a physical and emotional desire that drew its two men together persistently over time during a moment when their queerness might have gotten them killed, The Kids are All Right tells its funny, poignant tale from the perspective of an historical moment when seeing two moms like Nic and Jules deliver their daughter to college doesn’t warrant a second glance (well, at least in some places).

But it’s easy to forget that Nic and Jules—and the many lesbian mothers who no doubt inspired Chodolenko’s film, herself included—were pioneers 20 years ago, using sperm banks and artificial insemination to create their families of choice. And these characters provide one of the first film representations of a long-term lesbian couple that actually seems convincing. They work to keep their sex life active, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. (The scene in which Nic wears her glasses so that she can see the gay male porn on their bedroom television and criticizes the men’s bodies while Jules is under the covers working to make her happy is very funny.) They find more frequent intimacy talking about their kids with one another, face to face on their pillows at night.They know they’re different from one another; Nic is controlling and Jules is perpetually lost. Their power dynamic means that Jules sometimes feels invisible, at home raising the family while Nic is distracted with work. They’re not perfect.

As Jules says, a marriage is really hard work and you inevitably hurt the ones you love most as you slog through the years, making mistakes you sometimes can’t fix and trying to go on. Jules interrupts Nic, Joni, and Laser, who are watching television together on the couch, and stands in front of the screen to deliver her homily. The scene is beautifully performed—Moore’s eyes tear and her voice chokes, and Bening cries as she looks up at her wife, clinging to Joni and Laser’s hands. At the end of the monologue, Jules realizes she’s been speechifying, awkwardly says, “Thanks,” and nearly bows, then leaves the room while Nic sobs on the couch. We don’t see them reconcile—we just see their lives continue, as they take Joni off to college.

When they’ve said their goodbyes to their oldest child, and the now-three of them get back in their car (a Volvo station wagon, of course) to return home, Laser says from his perch in the back seat, “I don’t think you two should break up.” Amused, Nic asks why not, and he retorts with affection, “You’re too old.” Nic and Jules smile at one another and reach to each other across the car seat. The film ends on a close-up of their hands clasped—two middle-aged women’s hands, forcefully joined, fiercely determined, loving the past they share and the future they’ll create.

Can’t argue with that.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Hurt Locker

I didn’t see the Academy Awards extravaganza on tv on Sunday night which, I read in the Times, lasted for three-and-a-half hours. But reading the news the next day, I was delighted by several awards: first, that The Hurt Locker won for Best Picture over Avatar; second, that Kathryn Bigelow won as Best Director for The Hurt Locker, the first and only woman in the history of the Oscars to achieve this distinction; and finally, and perhaps surprisingly, that Sandra Bullock won for The Blind Side. I’ll save Bullock for my next post.

The Hurt Locker is a terrific film, made with a combination of guts and sensitivity that can’t be attributed in any superficial way to the gender of its director. I’ve been reading a lot lately about 1970s lesbian feminist “women’s culture” in the U.S., and its essentialist claims about women’s unique emotional understandings, their pacificism, and their prized connection to nature. I’m finding that these exaggerated claims were usually more tempered than history has made them sound; many1970s feminists were just trying to stake claims for women in a political context in which their social and cultural contributions had been dismissed and ignored.

Carving out separate space and insisting on women’s differences from men seemed, in the 70s, a useful activist strategy, and it promoted a range of cultural production that I’m hoping reconsider. But 1970s cultural feminists would no doubt have disparaged Bigelow’s work in The Hurt Locker, tarring it with the sticky brush of “male identification.”

But in 2010, it’s still not surprising that the first woman to receive the Best Director award won it for a film about war. But Bigelow’s film addresses not just war’s brutality, but its seductions, the adrenalin rush it can deliver, and the insidious, chaotic way it makes lives meaningful.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, nominated but passed over for Best Actor) spends the war in Iraq wandering the ravaged countryside defusing bombs. He’s part of a three-man team traveling together in an armored vehicle, but he’s the one who puts on the suit that’s meant to protect him from the bombs he proceeds to dismantle by hand.

The puffy, full-body suit and the helmet that encases his head makes James look like an astronaut space-walking across the desert. Bigelow brings her camera close to Renner’s face as he moves laboriously toward bomb sites, so that you can see the sweat slicking his skin and hear him talking to himself and his partners as he trundles awkwardly toward what might very well be his own death.

The nonchalance and defiance with which he confronts his job’s danger make James gripping to watch. He’s also a renegade who makes his own decisions and often refuses to follow the protocol his superior, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), shouts at him through his headset. James is as unpredictable as the bombs he sets out to defuse.

Bigelow brings the film a stunning tension that electrifies each scene. Even when the soldiers aren’t racing over dusty Iraqi streets, past burned out storefronts and shells of apartment buildings toward buried munitions, The Hurt Locker keeps you wary, suspicious, and watching for the unexpected.

The soldiers see peril where the audience’s untrained eyes don’t. For example, as James dons the heavy suit and walks toward the center of a town where a bomb has been discovered, Sanborn surveys the scene with binoculars, and sees an Iraqi man with a cell phone in his hand.

Before we understand what this means, he’s screaming, “He’s got a cell phone, he’s got a cell phone!” The other American soldiers try to find and shoot the man before he can activate the bomb. The most minute, imperceptible actions signal danger; the fact that the audience can’t read these signs makes every moment of the film anxious.

Bigelow nuances our vicarious understanding of how soldiers’ actions can be intensely intimate and personal or completely distanced and removed. In another scene, James, Sanborn, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), their naïve young teammate, are caught by snipers as they cross an abandoned stretch of deserted desert countryside. Leaping out of their Humvee, the three soldiers roll into position against a hillock that offers a vantage point from which they can barely see their assailants off in the distance.

Even with binoculars and telescopic rifle sights, it’s difficult for them to target the men, who occupy an abandoned structure that sits what might be miles away. Bigelow frames our view through James’s binoculars or Sanborn’s rifle sight, but we still can’t really make out what they see. James directs Sanborn’s aim, and as Sanborn squeezes the rifle’s trigger, time attenuates. The bullets seem to travel very slowly over the long distance to their marks.

When the bullets finally reach the anonymous Iraqis, their features blurred by distance, they fall silently. But the relationship between cause (the shooting) and effect (the dying) seems tenuous and surreal. It’s difficult to draw a connection between the American soldiers’ actions and the Iraqi men’s crumpling bodies, making the scene almost phantasmagorical in how Bigelow constructs the relationship between the action and the thing it does. When we see someone shot in a film, they usually buck from the force and instantly fall over dead. Here, we watch the unpredictable but inexorable passage of time between aim and destiny, and these long moments feel disquietingly real.

The sniper scene is also remarkable for how patiently Bigelow waits in the moment. It’s not clear how long James and Sanborn sit in their positions against the low rise, surveying the enemy. The light changes imperceptibly as they watch, barely moving. Sanborn sights through his weapon as flies land in his eyebrows. They talk quietly, not facing one another, keeping their eyes on the horizon.

Long after it seems they’ve killed all the snipers, James and Sanborn wait, searching for movement, determined to outlast anyone who might be calculating their last opportunity to strike. The excruciating but simply constructed scene demonstrates the men’s vulnerability as well as the boredom they endure to protect themselves and to outwit their enemy.

In another unforgettable moment, the team is called to an open town square where a suicide bomber balks and pleads to be spared from the fate he chose. James and Sanborn approach warily, assessing whether the man just intends to trick them into coming closer. Again, Bigelow puts the audience within the soldiers’ emotional turmoil, keeping her camera back with the vehicle as James and Sanborn try to judge the danger, then moving toward the overwrought Iraqi as James puts on the suit and approaches.

We arrive with James to find the man trussed up as a human time bomb. The dynamite strapped against his chest attaches to a clock ticking off the minutes and seconds until it explodes. A metal cage encases the whole apparatus, padlocked against just the kind of second thoughts the would-be suicide bomber now experiences.

Here, unlike in the sniper scene, Bigelow gets intimate with the effects of war. James realizes he can’t defuse the bomb in time, and instead tries to free the man from his death trap. Ripping off his helmet and visor, he insists Sanborn bring him tools, and works mightily to release the Iraqi. But as the seconds tick down, James realizes his attempt is futile; he doesn’t have time to cut through the cage. He looks into the poor man’s eyes, entreating him to understand, in a language he doesn’t speak, James’s sorrow over not being able to save him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeats, knowing his face is the last this hysterical, doomed fellow human being will ever see. Then he runs, with seconds left to save himself.

The dynamite ignites as James hustles away, its force lifting him off the ground and throwing him from the tornado of fire, dust, and body parts it hurls through the air. The ambivalent Iraqi’s death is palpable, as we’re left imagining in vivid detail his body exploding like an overripe piece of fruit dropped from a high table. The moment’s intimacy depicts the flip side of war; looking a soon-to-be-dead man in the eyes and trying to release his body from its fate is a far cry from the remote, clinical rifle work necessary to execute men so far away their humanity is abstracted.

Bigelow’s feel for how war changes register and key is also apparent in how she draws the soldiers’ relationships in The Hurt Locker. Sanborn and James warily paw the ground around one another, knowing they’re forced to trust the other man with their lives. Their situation requires machismo they both know is only fabricated. In one of Mackie’s finest moments—in an excellent performance overlooked by the Academy—Sanborn asks James if he thinks Sanborn would ever be brave enough to put on the suit.

From the timid, embarrassed hopefulness with which he poses the question, Mackie demonstrates that Sanborn isn’t made of the necessary stuff. But James’s generous reassurance that Sanborn, too, could do the work, underlines that the only thing separating the two men is their essential level of regard for their own lives.

The Hurt Locker is paced by titles that count down the days until the men’s unit leaves Iraq, markers that also increase the tension by playing on the audience’s expectation that something will go wrong and they won’t make it out alive. But James and Sanborn do decamp. We soon see James at home, months later, his hair grown longer, domesticated by his girlfriend (Evangeline Lilly). They shop at a supermarket, where the array of colors and the variety of textures contrasts with the rest of the film’s limited visual palette, in which khaki-clad soldiers crawl over dun-colored land bleached by harsh sunlight.

But James rests lightly at home. He smokes and stares out the window, held static by a world that comes at him with slow predictability. Before long, he’s back in uniform, marching out of the belly of a transport plane that delivers him back to Iraq and a war to which he’s clearly addicted. A chilling half-smile plays on his face as he leaves the plane; James is an adrenalin junky anticipating his next fix.

The Hurt Locker is a terrific anti-war film, in part because it never overtly criticizes the conflict’s politics. It tallies the war’s effects in human costs, not by counting the dead, but by chronicling in quotidian, disturbing ways what war does to the living.

The Feminist Spectator

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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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