Movies can be a lens. They can also be a mirror. In our own lives, there are no better mirrors of ourselves than our family, whether we embrace this mirror or not is up to us. We can run from it or we can face it. But we cannot deny it.
The latest film by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) is about these mirrors in our lives, the ones we hold up to ourselves and the ones we hold up to each other. It is a film about family, about forgiveness, and sometimes about failure. But mostly, it is about the things we cannot run away from.
At first glance, Rachel Getting Married wouldn’t seem to be a likely candidate to herald the official beginning of Oscar season. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. Starring Anne Hathaway of Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted and Devil Wears Prada fame, and with a title like Rachel Getting Married, it seems more like a classic “chick flick” than an issues-oriented family drama. But, as directed by Demme and written by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney), Rachel Getting Married is unexpected from the opening credits and doesn’t let up until the final shot, making it one of the most unique, original and truly interesting films I’ve seen in a long time.
Hathaway, who delivers the most dramatic role of her career, plays Kym, an addict who, after 9 months in rehab, gets “let out” to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding in suburban Connecticut. Rachel, played by the sublime Rosemarie DeWitt, hopes that for the few days around her wedding that things can be calm, but that is too much to hope for as Kym has always been a magnet for drama. Past family issues are certain to resurface, and Kym’s combative nature, combustibly blended with her guilt-ridden conscience seeking to make amends and her passive and wounded father (the endearing and textured Bill Irwin) seeking to smooth over every rough edge while keeping a close eye on Kym’s every move make for a family reunion high in potential drama.
But what so easily could have become a made-for-television melodrama quickly becomes something else. Lumet avoids falsity and gloss and actually lets the characters breathe. Instead of forcing any dramatic situations, the drama arises naturally out of the characters just existing together, while we watch and listen in. What ends up happening feels so real, is do deep, so moving and so un-forced, it feels as if it’s happening in our own living room.
And that’s the thing about this film. I’ve seen many movies about personal discovery and therapy, especially dealing with addiction, including When A Man Loves a Woman, Girl, Interrupted and 28 Days, and Rachel Getting Married reminds me in a lot of ways of all of them, but it brings everything back home. Everything in Rachel Getting Married is about home. It is such an intimate and narrowly focused movie that we feel almost guilty for peering through the keyhole and eavesdropping on these characters’ lives. Lumet has drawn characters rich in detail, identifiable and relatable, flawed and human. This is a film about family, about coping, about suffering, and about surviving, but, at its core, this is a film about connecting with our humanity. The simpler it looks, the deeper it goes.
And that’s its beauty. This is not a story rich in texture. It is not a film that will blow you over with subtext and deep themes. But it is a deeply emotional film, and if you let it get inside you, if you let it swirl around your heart for a little while, it will get to you. There are moments when it tries too hard, but when the characters are just left to be…the audience feels it. And we are connected to them. I read somewhere that Demme asked the actors to “behave” instead of act, and that no two takes were the same. That comes through in the film, as there is a real feeling of authenticity between the characters, and the dialogue feels real, the scenes feel like human beings interacting instead of actors blocking rehearsed maneuvers. We are reminded of how good an actress Debra Winger is, as she makes her return to the big screen here as Kym and Rachel’s mother, in a performance that is restrained and defiant and feels very reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore’s hauntingly brilliant performance in Ordinary People. You don’t need to wonder why Winger signed up for this project; it is an actor’s dream.
There is however, a limit to how much an audience can take. Demme’s choice of using a hand-held video camera to shoot the film in a cinema verite style was wrong wrong wrong and does nothing but distract the audience throughout.
And while I realize much of the film’s strength comes from the “peeking in on the lives” of the characters, there is too much time spent on creating the ambience and atmosphere swirling around our main characters, specifically the wedding reception. The joy reflected in the dancing, the multi-cultural guests, and the spirited celebration plays appropriately to contrast Kym’s solitary journey through the darkness of her demons, but it goes on way too long. What we care about are the central characters and we are only engaged when they are engaged with each other. That is when the film really works.
At the heart of this film is not the messages of love and the power of therapy, or what it takes to overcome adversity or tragedy, although some may extract any or all of those from this film (again…it’s all in there). Instead, what I see this film to be about is the natural pull of the place where it’s hardest for us to be. It’s about facing the demons within ourselves, and accepting our part in perhaps the creation of demons in others. But, mostly, it is about the pull of family, the ultimate mirror and the ultimate lens of our lives, sometimes suffocating, sometimes life-saving, but always necessary.