We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

On International Women’s Day, we need to talk about mothers. Motherhood, the role that can bring so much joy, and so much grief. No grief can compare to that of seeing your child self-destruct, and in the process, destroying others.

To start with, the wandering, free-spirited Eva (Tilda Swinton) before motherhood reflects an unsettling soul. Seems like she accidentally trespasses into the territory that calls for extreme commitment when she gets pregnant. While other expectant mothers fully embrace their swollen bellies, Eva faces her pregnancy with apprehension and awkwardness. Once Kevin is born, she knows full well that it is an irreversible life-long occupation.

Kevin screams all day and night as a baby, is incommunicable as a toddler, foul-mouthed, menacing and hateful as a child. The first thing he does to his newborn younger sister while visiting her in the hospital is to splash water into her eyes. This act will be repeated when he becomes a teenager, but it won’t be as harmless as water. Can’t his parents see it coming? I must give credit to Tilda Swinton, who has given us an audacious and engaging performance as Eva, but one, I’m afraid, that may not appear quite as sensible as it should.

If you are not a tiger mom, but has a tiger son on your hands, what are you to do? Wouldn’t you have sought professional help for your child, or counselling for yourself? Yes, we see Eva take Kevin to a doctor when he’s a non-communicating toddler, but what about all the years hence, until at 16 when all hell breaks loose? Ezra Miller as teenaged Kevin is a persona of a most disturbed young man; unfortunately, his self-absorbed, relentless evil scheming renders his performance two-dimensional.

I have not read the book by Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk About Kevin was the Orange Prize Winner of 2005, an award honoring women’s writing. Shriver might well have depicted her characters and their inner turmoils with more depth, as a literary rendition can.

I knew of the plot in general before I stepped into the theatre. My expectation was that the film would be exploring the issues of parental responsibility and guilt from raising a wayward child despite all good intentions. I thought it would deal with the problem of evil, or the issue of nature and nurture, and the choices we can make in spite of our predicament.

But the film surprises me in that it has not delivered what could have been a study of any of the above issues. Maybe parental guilt, but still, not in depth. We only see the stunned look of Eva in every scene. Even before the tragic end, with overwhelming evidences of a terribly disturbed son, we hear little communication between Eva and her unsuspecting husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), who encourages Kevin’s interest in archery. (ah-ha… big hint)  Seems like director Lynne Ramsay’s goal is just to shock and disturb with exaggerated visuals and sounds, or its lack of to create mood. The ubiquitous red, another obvious hint. It is effective as an absorbing, suspenseful thriller, relentless in its portrayal of evil, but for the purpose of…?

The film has been talked about much in the UK. And on both sides of the Atlantic, many critics have given it high acclaim; others have pointed to its Oscar snub. While I had high expectation before I saw it, I left with a void of disappointment, which, I’m afraid, has extinguished my interest to read the book. If you have read it, I’d love to hear you tell me otherwise.

But on this very day, let us give kudos to all mothers who, regardless of results, stay true to their role and love in spite of everything. This we can see in the final scene and the last shot, the embrace in prison, probably the most meaningful in the whole film.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Then She Found Me: Book Review

This is one of those frequent examples where a film is so drastically different from the book that they are virtually two very separate entities. But what’s unusual is, I’ve enjoyed them both.

Then She Found Me, published in 1990, is written by award winning New England author Elinor Lipman. Helen Hunt, together with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin, wrote the screenplay and turned it into a movie. I can understand why those who have read the book first before seeing the movie are flabbergasted. The only commonality between the book and the film other than the title may just well be the two main characters, the quiet and rational high school Latin teacher April Epner and her birth mother Bernice Graverman, the ostentatious TV talk show host who wants to claim back the daughter she had given up for adoption more than 30 years ago. There are almost no traces of the original story in the movie.

The amusing character contrast in the book is a springboard for some creative channelling for Hunt and her screenwriter team, kudos to Lipman’s original conception of the story idea. Despite its digression from the book, the movie still works and entertains. What more, it has preserved the spirit of the book and has brought to the screen the basic issues the book touches on, the major one being the meaning of motherhood, and the inevitable debate over the value of the birth versus the adoptive mother. For my detailed review of the movie, click here.

The She Found Me is my introduction to Elinor Lipman, the acclaimed author of eight books of fiction and short stories. The book is almost script ready, for it is predominantly dialogues, witty, intelligent, and incisive dialogues. Lipman’s sensitivity and subtle humor effectively bring out the nuances of her characters and their relationships, at times sarcastic, at times genuine, at times poignant.

36 year-old April Epner is a high school Latin teacher, quiet, rational, academic, and single. Her long-sleeved cotton jersey and drop-waist Indian cotton jumper persona hides a kind and genuine soul. The only parents she has known all her life are her adoptive Jewish parents Trude and Julius Epner, Holocaust survivors, who have lovingly brought her up and given her a Radcliffe education. After they have passed away and as she stands in the crossroads of her life, the last thing April needs is to be found by a brassy and impulsive talk show host Bernice Graverman, who claims to be her birth mother. Conscientious April has to match wit with evasive Bernice, with the help of her school librarian Dwight, who happens to be much more than just a supplier of encyclopedic information. Without giving out spoilers, let me just say the story unfolds with sprightly twists and turns, effectively driven by Lipman’s first-rate, cutting and entertaining dialogues.

Those who have seen the movie but have not read the book should move right along to savor the source material. In here you’ll find the intended closure to the seemingly unsolvable conflict and ambivalence. I can see this as a good choice for book/movie discussion in reading groups and book clubs.

As I was reading, I thought I saw Jane Austen cameo. What Lipman has created here is something close to what Austen would have written today: a contemporary comedy of manners, a likable heroine reminiscence of Anne Elliot, an anti-Darcy male character, albeit with similar height and social ineptness, and through the characters and their situations, dares to explore some serious social issues that are masked by very funny, sharp and witty lines. The result is a tasty concoction of humor and heart.

And lo and behold, guess whose portrait I see when I open up Elinor Lipman’s website ?

Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman is published by Washington Square Press, 1990, 307 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Motherhood and Music

This just happened over the weekend…

It was your typical wedding banquet. The elegant ballroom, the thirty some round tables tastefully decorated, the introduction of the wedding party, the welcoming of out-of-town guests, the buffet, the clinking of glasses…

All the usual stuff at your usual wedding celebration…until…the mother of the groom played Tchaikovsky at the piano.

As a promising, award-winning pianist in the then North Vietnam years back, her talent and future were stifled under the harsh political climate. Thanks to the sponsorship of a Canadian church, the family immigrated to Canada, starting a new life in freedom.

Not long after that, a tragic work-related accident claimed the life of the father. The mother continued to run the family business and raised her young children all by herself, instilling in them the love of music, while laying aside her own musical career…

Until, as a most moving gift of love, she practiced again for her son. On his wedding day, as the lights dimmed, she walked over to the grand piano in the banquet hall, and played with such depth of expression and poignancy, two selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, May: White Night, and June: Barcarolle. The 300 guests were silent, mesmerized, deeply moved…then the standing ovation.

The love of a mother, the power of music … what a wonderful way to bring up a child, what a remarkable beginning of a marriage.

***

Then She Found Me (2007)

 

Then She Found MeLet me guess, movie making is as demanding and draining as child rearing…and, if you’re doing both together, well…kudos to you.  Case in point, a gaunt and much thinner Helen Hunt.  Well, maybe that was on purpose for her role.  Anyway, after some intermittent hiatus since her second marriage in 2001 and the birth of her daughter in 2004, the Oscar winning actress (As Good As It Gets, 1997) comes out with a film that she co-writes, directs, and stars in.  Then She Found Me shows that Hunt is alive and well, and that she certainly can multi-task.

As a directorial debut, Then She Found Me is a gem of a film. Based on the novel of the same name by Elinor Lipman, TSFM has been on the drawing board for a long ten years.  To read NY Times’ Interview with Helen Hunt, Click Here. Hunt adapted the book into screenplay with Alice Arlen and Victor Levin throughout a few years’ period. 

Dramedy is the word for this genre of film.  The drama component of the movie spurs on some meaningful exploration:  of motherhood, adoption, marriage, parenting, faith, and God… But it’s a comedy, first and foremost, and we’re rewarded by its remaining so.  The movie is funny, smart, warm-hearted and entertaining…and best of all, we’re spared all the possible preachy sessions that could have come out from dealing with its subject matters.

Juggling motherhood and movie-making could have explained Hunt’s tired and thinner look.  On screen, such an appearance is suitably in character, for she portrays a 39 year-old kindergarten teacher April Epner, newly married, and in a desperate rush to become pregnant before time runs out.  As an adopted child, April is all the more longing for a baby of her own, thinking of the deeper relationship, bonding and meaning that can naturally come out from giving birth to and raising her own child as opposed to adopting one. To this view, her step-brother, the natural son of her Jewish adoptive mother responds, “No, it’s the same”.

Well, she soon finds out.  Her excitement of finally getting pregnant is not shared by new husband Ben (Matthew Broderick).  It is obvious that he is not eager to become a parent, or a husband, for that matter.  Actually, this news comes to him after he feels that he has made a mistake in getting hitched for life, and has moved back to live with his mother.  Sadly, Ben is still a boy, donning a baseball cap and expects everyone, especially his wife, to accept his Peter Pan confusion.

But that’s not all.  Just after her husband has left her, April’s Jewish adoptive mother dies.  And to top it all off, April encounters her birth mother Bernice (Bette Midler).  Well to be exact, her mother has found her.  But at this chaotic point in her life, April is ambivalent about coming face to face with her birth mother, especially one who is so brassy, imposing and self absorbed.  Bernice is a local TV talk show host.  After 39 years of absence, she suddenly decides she wants to find her daughter.  But upon questioning by April why she had given her up after a short parenting gig, Bernice may have understood April’s ambivalence.  And I like it when the film leaves the queries as queries… simple answers to questions like these are never easy to find.

Helen Hunt and Colin Firth

Confused and emotionally fragile, April finds new romance and support in Frank (Colin Firth), the recently divorced father of a student in her class.  His artist wife has left him for another guy and at the moment, she’s travelling the world with him. Underneath Frank’s calm and affable demeanor is a very hurt, confused, and anguished man.  If Colin Firth thinks he still has not shed his stereotyped Darcy image, this is the time to do it.  His versatility as an actor just shines through in this conflicting character.  Once bitten, twice shy.   Frank is emotionally vulnerable, yet he also yearns to establish a meaningful and loving relationship with April.  The intermingling of two fragile and affable characters is the springboard to some amusing and poignant moments.

As a first time director of a full length movie, Hunt has done a proficient job, despite some minor problems with pacing and congruence of scenes.  Certain shots could have been shortened to maximize the intended humor while some scenes ought to be connected more smoothly.  The audience may need to fill in the blanks at times.  Having said that, I feel that my enjoyment is not tampered a bit.  One note of caution though, the language is part of the reason it gets an R rating, and that might turn away some viewers.  

Kudos should go to the admirable acting by Hunt herself, as well as Firth and Midler.  Midler is effective as a self-serving intruder at first, yet is sensitive enough to change, especially as she empathizes with April’s anxiety … learning to be a mother after all these years.  And I must mention Salman Rushdie, yes, the Salman Rushdie, who plays a supportive role as the obstetrician.  He has effectively sprinkled in some subtle humor.

Further, I admire Hunt for not shying away from the problem of faith, loss, and God.  The plot lends itself naturally to the exploration of these complex issues, and Hunt has boldly dealt with them directly. The religious expressions and prayers uttered might be in Hebrew, but the yearning, and the angst, is poignantly human and universal. 

Well, Mother’s Day has come and gone, but motherhood lasts a lifetime.  As a devoted single-parent to his children, Frank in the movie has demonstrated that the marriage vow “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” can aptly apply to parenting.  And for all mothers, birth, adoptive, as well as those like Frank, who has to bear the responsibilities as one, it is in the nitty gritty of everyday realities that motherhood, or parenthood for that matter, finds its meaning and fulfillment. 

(The indie film is currently being screened on limited engagement in North America. It’s rated R in the U.S. for language and sexual content. In Canada, it’s rated from 14A to G, depending on the Province where it’s shown.)

To read my review of the book Then She Found Me, click here.

 

  ~ ~ ~ Ripples