So I promised to talk about "the films about child abuse" and never got back to it. And labeling these two films that way is a bit provocative, I admit. The two films I'm talking about are Margot at the Wedding, starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black, which I'm quite sure will be released to theatres some time this fall, and Nothing is Private by filmmaker, Alan Ball (of American Beauty and Six Feet Under fame) which I have no idea when it's going to be released. IMDB lists it's next screening as January 2008 in Turkey, presumably at another film fest. That should be an interesting screening to say the least!
First, Margot at the Wedding.
This film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach who was nominated for an Oscar for the screen play for The Squid and the Whale, also well worth seeing if you haven't seen it. Nicole plays the lead character, Margot, a successful and neurotic writer who's been estranged from her sister, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also estranged from her husband. Margot takes her son to visit her sister (who happens to live near her married lover) just before her sister's marriage to a somewhat slovenly character played by Jack Black, a man Margot does not approve of, believing him to be beneath her sister. (Hey, he's Jack Black. Who would approve?)
While this film isn't blatantly about child abuse, to me, the theme ran through this entire film. In fact, child abuse is what Nicole and Jennifer's characters are so uproariously laughing at in this photograph. They find abuse hilarious? I want to see this film again when hits the theatres to make sure I heard this conversation right.
Anyway, although I have yet to hear this child abuse interpretation of the film in any other review or in any discussion I had with other people at the festival, (a few people looked at me askew when I mentioned it) to me undercurrents of various forms of child abuse ran rampant through this film. As previously mentioned, the two sisters joke about being abused as children playing this sick game of escalation until they collapse in laughter. The next door neighbours, hillbilly types, are seen yanking the arms of and hitting their children, there is a sexual relationship between the Jack Black character and a teenage babysitter, and then Margot exerts an obsessive control over her son, which to me was tantamount to emotional or psychological abuse. Perhaps Margot's form was the most hideous abuse perpetrated by any of the adults. To me, that was the main "message" I got from the film. Nicole was so quick to judge the hillbilly parents or Jack Black with absolutely no self-awareness of how she was damaging her own son.
There's a scene that to me was so sad and touching, when her son sees the hillbilly mother and her son snuggled up together in their car on a ferry, and it's so clear that Margot's son has never received that kind of pure, unconditional parental love from his mother. In fact, there's an odd implication that either there has been some sexual abuse between Margot and her son or that she's paranoid about it happening (having been abused herself as a child?). I got this from a scene where she only agrees to share a bed with her son if they sleep with pillows between them. All showing, no telling. But I'm not 100% sure the scene meant to show what I saw.
Anyway, very interesting movie about which there's been Oscar buzz for Nicole already.
Interesting trivia. Jennifer Jason Leigh is married to screenwriter/director Noah Baumbach and this script was originally called Nicole in the Country (vs. Margot at the Wedding) and JJL was slated to play Nicole, the neurotic writer who goes to her sister's wedding. When Nicole Kidman became involved, JJL bowed out to play the other sister and the title of the film was changed with the main character renamed Margot instead of Nicole (for obvious reasons).
The second movie which had more blatant child abuse was Nothing is Private. I'm still not 100% sure what I thought of this movie, except that I'm glad I saw it. It's one of those strange little films that the censors will hate and distributors will be afraid to release.
You can say one thing about Alan Ball, he doesn't shy away from tough subjects. When the film started, I thought it was a frank coming of age story, kind of an updated Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, except with the twist that the 13-year-old girl was named Jasira and was half Lebanese. Watching this young girl discover her sexuality (including how to give herself an orgasm by just wiggling in her seat) made me wonder how a man had written this. I mean, do girls even talk about this kind of thing to each other, never mind tell Alan Ball? But tackling the sexual awakening of a thirteen year old isn't enough for Ball. Nor is making her half-Arab. Nor is setting this story in Texas (not exactly your racially diverse and accepting culture.) Nor is setting it at the start of the war on Iraq. No, that's not enough conflict for Ball. He has to make the army-reservist red-neck next door (played by Aaron Eckhart) sexually attracted to our poor thirteen year old heroine Jasira, and then have him act on it. He needs to make the father physically abusive. He needs to give the father all this ambiguities and double standards, not to mention the mother character played by the always believable Maria Bello. But it that we're complicated enough, he gave Jasira a very physically mature for his age, thirteen year old boyfriend--who's black. Which no one else in the story likes. (It is Texas. Sorry Texas. It's a stereotype, I know.)
There were no absolutes in this movie. Except of course, that it's impossible to justify what Aaron Eckhart's character does, even if Jasira did flirt with him and seemed almost willing. But even there, Ball and Eckhart don't make his character totally unsympathetic. In the writing and Eckhart's performance, you can see this guy struggling, rationalizing his actions, even if he makes all the wrong decisions. And he's an otherwise likable guy.
A complicated, challenging movie. I guess my first clue should have been when the first scene was Jasira's mother's boyfriend shaving her bikini line for her after the other girls called her Chewbacca in the swimming pool. (Although she did have a bathing suit on.)
Not a film for the faint of heart when it comes to the horrible things adult can do to mess up their kids.