Greetings again from the darkness. When is it too soon to look back? We all experienced the pandemic, and yet, things aren’t quite normal again … at least not the ‘old’ normal. Talented writer-director Peter Hedges (the underrated PIECES OF APRIL, 2003) shows us the various ways in which the pandemic affected folks, and how zoom and other virtual connections became the lifeline to the outside world for many.
You will surely recognize many of the faces being filmed by smart phones and zoom recordings. These include: Mary-Louise Parker, Sandra Oh, the great Elaine May, Rosemarie Dewitt, Ron Livingston, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr, Noma Dumezweni, Judith Light, and many others. Twenty-four characters in all (according to the synopsis), and we see most of them in two different scenarios. We see young people worried about old people, and vice versa. We see parents worried about kids, and kids worried about parents. Significant others check in on their “better half”, while a ‘ground zero’ nurse searches for a different kind of companionship and escape. We see the struggles of teachers and parents, and witness the loss of loved ones. There is even an online yoga class, a virtual AA meeting, and the challenges of Tele-doc.
You will recognize most of these situations and exchanges, whether you went through them yourself, or heard about them from friends or family members. What’s obvious is the heightened stress level of every person during this unique time period. The effects of isolation and loneliness are expertly portrayed here, and we should all be quite appreciative of zoom meetings, Facetime, and all other virtual connection applications. Only you can decide if it’s too soon or not, but either way, we can tip our caps to Peter Hedges and the actors.
Greetings again from the darkness. If only the transformation brought on by puberty were half as soft and cuddly as the giant Red Panda in this latest from Pixar, imagine the reduction in slammed doors and the increase in dinner table conversations between parents and young teenagers. Writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her excellent animated short film BAO (2018), and has collaborated with co-writer JuliaCho for the director’s first feature. It seems reasonable to assume that much of what we see on screen is taken from their own adolescent experiences, as well as those of countless others.
Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old 8th grader who fancies herself as a free-spirited teenager basking in her independence. However, the real story is that she’s a straight-A student obediently following the highly structured life constructed by her mother. Mei’s responsibilities include helping her mother clean the temple the family manages … the oldest temple in Toronto. It not only serves the local Chinese community by paying homage to the Gods, but it also holds a sacred place for Mei’s ancestors. Mei’s mother keeps her so duty-bound, that she’s unable to find time to karaoke with her friends.
One morning, after a particularly vivid and emotional dream, Mei is transformed into a giant Red Panda … well she pops in and out of Panda state. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) quickly reacts assuming her daughter’s “change” is the beginning of a menstrual cycle. But things change drastically when Ming finds out about the Red Panda. Her family has considered this a spell from the Gods, one that has followed the women for multiple generations. Mei discovers this when her grandmother and a slew of Aunts show up for the Red Moon ritual – the only way to rid Mei of the Red Panda.
Mei soon realizes her emotional outbursts are what cause the transformation. When she’s overly excited or agitated, the Red Panda appears. It’s mostly when she’s calm and at ease around her friends that she’s her ‘normal’ self. In fact, the friendships are the key to this story. Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (MaitreyiRamakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) immediately rally to Mei’s defense and accept these startling changes. They even find a way to use it to their advantage, focusing on an upcoming concert by 4-Town, a 5 member (yep) boy band that the girls are gaga about. The music for 4-Town is co-written by BillieEilish and Finneas O’Connell, and is humorously in line with what we’d expect (and remember) from a 2002 boy band.
We watch as Mei struggles with the emotional rollercoaster that brings out the Red Panda. It’s refreshing to see such a portrait of friendship, and also acknowledge that overbearing parents can cause stress, no matter how caring they might be. Mei learns that by letting go of the perfect kid syndrome and wallowing in her messy self, she can truly discover who she is as a young person. It’s a Pixar movie, so we fully expect life lessons and psychology to play a role. And that’s also part of the problem here. Being a Pixar film means you get compared to other Pixar films, and that’s a crazy high standard. This one doesn’t come close to the best work from the studio, although we welcome the rare look at female adolescence and friendship, as well as the impact a mother-daughter relationship can have on multiple generations.
Available exclusively on Disney+ beginning March 11, 2022
Greetings again from the darkness. It would be very easy to dismiss this film as a depressing story or a real downer for the holiday season. Admittedly, the timing of its release is a bit odd, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very well made and extremely well acted film. This is a character study in dealing with grief … the breathless grief of losing a young child. The story is told with respect, warmth and even touches of humor. Based on the acclaimed play from David Lindsay-Abaire, director John Cameron Mitchell stays true to the individuals within the story and avoids a weepfest.
Nicole Kidman plays Becca, who is married to Howie (Aaron Eckhart). The couple are 8 months removed from the death of their 4 year old son who was killed when he chased his dog into the street. 8 months or 8 years. When in group therapy, Becca and Howie meet Gaby (Sandra Oh) who has been in the group for 8 years. Healing has its own timeline for each person. Becca has little use for the “God people” or the group addicts and quickly stops attending. Instead, she spends her time lashing out at everyone … her husband, her mother, her pregnant sister … even her dog and a lady at the grocery store.
Oddly enough, it is her bond with the high school boy who was driving the car that killed her son that helps her break through. She senses his pain and he understands hers. The story does a subtle and terrific job of showing how we are all touched by grief and how it affects the way we live our life. The best scene in the film is with Becca and her mother (Dianne Weist) in the basement. Her mother honestly tells her that “it” never goes away, but it does change. The grief becomes “bearable”. That’s really the goal.
No matter how many books are written on the topic, no blueprint will ever be one-size-fits-all for coping with the void and emptiness from the loss of a loved one. This story shows that if you can keep moving forward and keep connecting with others, the burden will become bearable.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character studies with outstanding performances … even if they are based around the process of dealing with grief.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer lighter fare in your holiday flicks – this certainly isn’t A Christmas Story