Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fun for the Whole Family?

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

A large woman, couchbound for years, walks upstairs to the utter amazement of her family. A shy young man begins courting an inflatable doll named Bianca, and is affirmed in his relationship by a small town. A not-traditionally-beautiful little girl goes off to a beauty pageant accompanied by her bickering parents, her silent brother, her gay suicidal uncle, and her drug-abusing, foul-mouthed grandfather.

Film-goers may recognize the above as representative snippets from three films: respectively, Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993); Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (1997); and Jonathan Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006). The cynical among us might look at the list (and indeed the films in their entirety) and think, “Fun family entertainment, Hollywood style.”

At one level, the critique would hold. The families in these films (if we can count Lars and Bianca as a ‘family’) put the dys- in dysfunctional, and none of them constitute “family fare” in the traditional sense of the word. A few moments around the dinner table with Alan Arkin’s ‘colorful’ grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine would give the proverbial drunken sailor pause, while even the generally sweet-tempered Lars and the Real Girl centers on a man and, um, an inflatable doll. Anyone thinking to gather the young kids around for Edifying Video Night with one of these films should un-think it pretty quickly.

We could go on and level a salient cultural critique as to why these films roll the way they do. They could be seen as the quintessential products of the postmodern ethos, where traditional values are there only to be shredded, and alternative life-style choices – whether it is affairs with married women (or unmarried dolls); septuagenarian heroin ingestion; or illicit water tower climbing (one of the many memorable scenes with a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Gilbert Grape) -- are there to be tolerated, if not indeed celebrated.

They could also be seen as a perhaps welcome salination of the sickly sweet family films of a bygone era: here comes Lassie to drag Timmy out of the neighbors’ cobra pit. Mom had told him a hundred times not to go in that thing, but we know he’ll learn his lesson and they will all live happily ever after. (“Gee, Mom, you’re swell! And you too, Lassie!” “Ruff!”)

And yet…I found myself moved by all these films, and wondered what it was that touched me. They are all well directed and well acted, but that only provides a lowest common denominator for enjoyment. What distinguishes them is that, for all their visible dysfunction and edgy behavior, they really are sweet at heart. The characters may find themselves lost in a jungle of pathology, but they eventually hack their way through the brush to find one another, and with that to find some kind of peace amidst the chaos of life.

The fact that they find it in the worst possible circumstances of ordinary life makes the grace of re-discovering one’s family all the more profound. In Gilbert Grape, a dropped birthday cake can rip your heart out, but the mother’s trudge to the second floor becomes a kind of ascent of Jacob’s ladder. Try to keep a dry eye as kindly Karin berates Lars for not recognizing what they are doing for him, “Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because - all these people - love you!” As for Little Miss Sunshine, all I can say is that you may never think about Rick James’ Superfreak the same way again.

I may be wrong about the merits of these films. But it is not because there is something strange about the idea of love appearing in the strangest of places, or of something – or Someone – pulling people together when everything seems to be pulling them apart. Whatever the filmmakers’ motives may have been, the films can function for us as parables of the divine seed of the gospel that flourishes in the most unlikely soil.

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