Tag Archives: women filmmakers

The Kids are All Right, Redux

After I posted my own blog on the film, I read several other responses from queer bloggers and LGBTQ folks in mainstream internet outlets —Jack Halberstam on Bully Bloggers, Kate Clinton at The Huffington Post, and Mark Harris at Entertainment Weekly, for only several example—and wanted to add an addendum to my own post as a result.

I enjoyed Cholodenko’s movie and don’t feel at all ashamed to say it. I don’t go to mainstream Hollywood films expecting radical ideological positions; call me conservative, call me liberal, but I don’t expect that particular form to be the one in which we save the world.I’m happy for a mainstream film that depicts lesbian relationships at all—how many, after all, can we list?

Isn’t this why The Kids are All Right bears what Kobena Mercer called so long ago now “the burden of representation”? Because there are so few representations of lesbians in the mainstream, everyone brings to them their own investments and standards, and it goes without saying how impossible it is to please everyone.

Yes, as Kate Clinton notes, the movie is in some ways the same-old same-old, and there’s no good lesbian sex “with skin.” But as Mark Harris says, Cholodenko seems more interested in what makes a long-term relationship than in sexy representations of lesbian moms. He thinks The Kids is one of the best films ever to describe what marriage means and how it looks. But some people think it didn’t do justice to long-term lesbian relationships, either.

Sure, the movie isn’t perfect. How could it be? As Sarah Schulman says on Bully Bloggers, it’s an achievement that it got made at all, a testament not only to Cholodenko’s skill as a filmmaker (given her track record with High Art and Laurel Canyon), but no doubt to her ability to move through Hollywood deal-making structures that of course will have some bearing on the final product. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

But can’t we look at what this film does and acknowledge that while it doesn’t do everything, it makes a contribution to however liberal a discourse about lesbians—white, upper-middle class, LA lesbians, who co-parent in a committed relationship; in other words, a certain type of lesbians—in the mainstream imaginary?

I found the film funny, moving, and observant about what it means to work through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship.And despite my own choice not to parent, I admire women who buck the odds, adopt one another’s biological children in conservative states like Texas, for only one example (where, had the movie been set there, the story might have been utterly different), and use their daily lives as a site of their activism.

The relationship Cholodenko depicts isn’t mine, either. I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, but we don’t call one another “wife,” as they do in the film. In fact, we cringe at that language, and want no ceremony of any sort (marriage or commitment) to mark our relationship. But we live in New Jersey, where we did take advantage of civil union legislation, in large part because we want to be able to make health care decisions for one another should it become necessary (and it will).

Implicit in some negative discussion about The Kids is judgment against the kind of lesbian families or relationships the film represents. Calling the film’s central relationship only normative seems exaggerated. Lesbians (and gay men) who want to marry might be assimilationist, but are there so many lesbian and gay families that they’re already widely recognizable and accepted, especially outside the west coast urban context in which the story plays out?

Doesn’t the film at least add to the number of public, mainstream representations of a family form that might still be alien to many people who see this film? If Nic and Jules seem “just like us” to many of those viewers, is that a bad thing, really? Some lesbiansaren’t just like the mainstream and don’t aspire to be. But some do; should they be judged badly for that?

It seems to me futile to prescribe what’s “truly” radical in a lesbian relationship, or to suggest that any mainstream representation is just bound to get it wrong.

The good thing about The Kids are All Right is that it gives us something to argue around the perennial question of how the margins should be represented in the mainstream.

I hope, in 2010, that lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer social movement activism can accommodate multiple efforts on multiple fronts.It’s desperately important that we keep reimagining different ways of being people, reconfiguring the relative value of sexual practice, and re-envisioning potentially new arrangements for domestic structures.

I’d hope there’s room for work like Cholodenko’s alongside work by more formally and ideologically radical artists, like, for only one instance, Holly Hughes, whose newest performance, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), I just had the pleasure of seeing at Dixon Place in New York.

I’m personally eager to see both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, and to treat it all with the kind of critical generosity I think it deserves.

The Feminist Spectator

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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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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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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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