Amazing Grace is two days of Baptist church condensed to 90 minutes and injected directly into your soul.
“Laugh, cry, love together.” the words stood out in bold on the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival’s leaflets, beckoning us into a twelve day journey of cinematic stories, running the gamut of emotions to elicit those very reactions. It was a pithy encapsulation of the emphasis of this year’s program to—in the words of TFF’s artistic director Frederic Boyer—"capture the emotion and complexities of everyday life." Nowhere was the phrase more profoundly resonant than in the lineup of films centered on family; a taken-for-granted, yet extremely complicated element of daily existence. A varied, dynamic slate of narrative features, these stories explored the circumstances that rupture and jeopardize relationships as well as rebuild and strengthen them, exploring not only the ever-evolving parameters of what constitutes family, but also the nuances that entangle and enrich them.
The tumultuous paths of motherhood have been traveled countless times on screen, but they take on a unique blend of acerbic honesty and poignancy in writer-director Paul Weitz’s "Grandma." Pregnant teen Sage (Julia Garner) appears on the doorstep of her gay, recently single, and caustic-tongued grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin), in need of $600 for an abortion. Unwilling to approach Sage’s mercurial mom Judy (Marcia Gay Harden)—whose relationships with both Elle and Sage have been in perennial dispute— for support, granddaughter and grandmother drive through the streets of L.A., seeking the charity of a number of Elle’s old, many strained relationships, inevitably coming face-to-face with Judy herself. But while the frantic journey may be to gather the funds for Sage’s procedure, it also becomes one that leads through the history of these mothers and daughters, as it forces Elle to confront jilted ex-lovers and the scars they still bear; compels Elle and Judy to acknowledge past mistakes with rippling effects that continue to test their relationship with each other; and urges all three women to ask and answer avoided questions. As Elle, Sage and Judy navigate the people, the secrets, and the circumstances that have at once driven them apart and still hold them together, a road trip to terminate one young woman’s pregnancy sparks revelations about the choices, lessons, and meaning of being a mother and a daughter over three generations.
A popular undercurrent of the strained parent/child relationship, deep-rooted resentment also comes into play between Christopher Walken and Amber Heard’s characters in Robert Edwards’ "When I Live My Life Over Again." Paul Lombard (Walken), a past-his-prime musician desperate to return to the scene in a last-ditch attempt at relevance, steps on the toes of his daughter Jude (Heard), who is wallowing in her own struggle to make it in the world of music. But while their overlapping career tracks form the narrative of the film, the bitterness that courses through its emotional vein points to deeper issues of a father/daughter dynamic marred by the collateral damage that one father’s missteps have wreaked on his daughters. Here again, previous actions plague present interactions. Six times married and a chronic womanizer, Paul has lavished more of his attention on charming Jude’s friends and teachers throughout her childhood than on his paternal responsibilities towards his children, such that neither Jude nor her sister feels good enough and nobody is loved in the way that they need. It’s an obvious and convenient conclusion to connect Jude’s insecurities and professional inertia to Paul’s own self-serving antics and resulting negligence, but when an exasperated Paul places the onus back onto her, calling her out on the “New Age need to blame your parents for your issues,” he prompts Jude as well as the rest of us to pause and ponder: at one point does pointing fingers end, and moving on begin? As with "Grandma," old, suppressed wounds resurface in "When I Live My Life Over Again" as the weight of decisions made long ago comes to bear decades later, threatening to overwhelm the potential for amends between parents and children—and yet, without reopening those wounds, the very prospect of reconciliation would be impossible.
But overcoming the past isn’t the only path to realize familial value; in Diane Bell’s "Bleeding Heart," prudish yoga teacher May (Jessica Biel) and her troubled, rudderless younger sister Shiva (Zosia Mamet) have no shared history to speak of. In fact, they’ve never even met, until May tracks Shiva down some 25 years after their mother gave them up. Here, the significance of family isn’t a gratifying revelation following an extended cold war. Their bond isn’t tested by conflict with each other—the two slip into an easy camaraderie almost instantly—but with external elements that inhibit and endanger them: May’s cocoon-like spiritual existence, Shiva’s abusive boyfriend. Unlike Elle, Jude, or Paul, whose messy emotional baggage prevents them from appreciating each other, May and Shiva’s clean slate enables them to comprehend that, polar opposites as they may be, a shared bloodline is all the connection they need, making "Bleeding Heart" a celebration of the automatic, unquestionable strength of sisterhood even when it is newly forged.
And in still other stories, characters with no biological links to hold them together highlight the value of family, as in Andrew Renzi’s "Franny." The title character (Richard Gere) is a wealthy philanthropist, suffering severe survivor’s guilt after a car crash that killed his two best friends. When their daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) re-enters his life five years later, he views it as an opportunity to redeem himself, and to reconnect with the one person in the world who still embraces him as family. But, wracked with remorse at his role in her parents’ deaths and desperate to be a part of a close-knit unit once again, he overcompensates for lost time and people with his deep pockets and overzealous, often inappropriate interference in Olivia’s new life, whether it’s buying her a house, handing her husband a cushy job, or his general tendency to overstay his welcome. As his persistent attempts to remain relevant in Olivia’s world as a paternal figure do more to fracture their relationship than enhance it, the virtue of family is, ironically, underscored by Franny’s misguided perceptions of how to be a part of one.
Chosen or inherited, estranged or newly discovered, what these families eventually share is the requirement of something bigger than their history that compels them to accept—if not forgive—their personal demons and recognize what is really at stake. As May puts it at one point in "Bleeding Heart," “you need an injury to grow up, to evolve.” In "Grandma," it is the gravity of Sage’s decision of whether to take the plunge on motherhood that forces an overdue confrontation between Elle and Judy. In "When I Live My Life Over Again," an unforeseen betrayal threatening to undermine Paul’s career comeback unites his children in his defense. In "Bleeding Heart," a threat to Shiva’s life triggers May’s unconditional acceptance of her sister’s crisis as her own, while for Franny, it’s a self-destructive breaking point that throws into sharp perspective his risk of losing, a second time, a treasured relationship. As parents, children, siblings and adoptive relatives are tested by new challenges, these stories highlight the potential for understanding that emerges between them. Fueled by that inexhaustible reserve of loyalty singular to the people we call family, it is ultimately revealed that in between the inescapable scars these relationships can inflict, they leave incomparable rewards.
"When I Live My Life Over Again" has a final showing at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 25th at 6:30pm. "Bleeding Heart" has a final showing on Saturday, April 25th at 9:30pm. Visit the Festival Page for detailed screening information.
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