Readers, let me catch you up: In early 2014, I began a four-part series in which I focused on films that captured the rare cinematic marvel of a living, breathing, three-dimensional female character — somebody who does not capture our attention by being fashion-model “perfect,” but rather by evincing a far more human kind of beauty.
The fourth part of the series has been long delayed because it took the movie a while to become available to the public. I initially included it in on my list of Favorite Films of 2014, but since it didn’t play nationwide (online) until January 2015, I’ve withdrawn it from last year’s list. It will figure highly on my list for 2015.
Thanks to iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Instant Video, you can watch it at home right now. And I’m not exaggerating to say that you would probably have a more meaningful time watching this movie on Sunday night than you would watching the Oscars’ Popularity Contest (in which all of the Best Picture nominees are about men reaching for some kind of fame, power, and importance. By contrast, this is a film about a woman trying to escape a world of superficiality in order to find a life of truth and meaning. Ladies and gentlemen… meet Margaret.
If we’re not careful, life becomes a costume party.
We put on our various personas—for work, for school, for church, for friends, for families, for spouses, for dates—and what we put on opens up parts of our personalities and shuts down others.
In Something, Anything, the first thing we see is nail polish. It’s part of Margaret’s ritual, how she prepares to take her place at the table during a social gathering with friends and her significant other. It’s clear right away, in a scene when we see her making a commitment to take on a new role—the role of wife and, her friends automatically assume, mother—that Margaret is willing, but not exactly enthusiastic. She seems surprised, withdrawn, laughing nervously as she says what everyone around her is expecting her to say. But notice: When her boyfriend proposes, she says two things: “Yes.” And “I don’t know what to say.” Hers is a life of capitulation, of accepting the shape of a life (note the symbolic gesture of a consumer-culture marriage: the aiming of the Box Store Bridal Registry Gun) without ever really coming to life. We move from Margaret painting her nails to Margaret picking up paint chips to imagine the color of her nursery.
And so she sets out on a journey that is very familiar to American moviegoers: the difficult and often oppressive life of the suburban housewife. In films as different as American Beauty, Edward Scissorhands, Little Children, and The ‘Burbs we have seen men and women trying to fit neatly into their neighborhoods, content to follow the program like a piece in a factory-made house, only to realize that an authentic life requires more than going through the motions. Such stories usually condemn those communities with broad brush-strokes of condemnation and contempt. And they urge their protagonists to break free from the prison of commitment, the humiliation of sacrifice, and launch out into a self-centered “seize the day” adventure.
But not this film. Instead of “Go out there and revel in your time!”, Something Anything has the wisdom to point us toward the ministry of a still, small voice. I’m not “reading too much into it” — the film actually opens with these lines:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.
– Christina Rosetti
A spirit, moving in mysterious ways, has already set Margaret at odds with her real-estate coworkers, who play games with their clients’ lives behind the scenes to make as much money for themselves as possible. After a life-and-death crisis exposes for Margaret all that is empty and false about the life she has half-heartedly chosen, she finds she is better able to empathize with those home-seekers and home-sellers who find themselves in desperate circumstances. And she knows that the way, the truth, and the life are calling her off the path of capitalism’s false promises. I want to proceed carefully here, so as not to spoil the plot for you, but at one point she mentions that she feels “pregnant.” And I think it’s a loaded statement: She may mean it one way, but I think we’re meant to sense that there is something within her that wants to be born. A new idea. A new life.
So, no… Margaret is not bound for an Eat Pray Love tour of self-indulgence and shallow pleasures. Even though her father offers her just that — a getaway to Europe — she will retreat instead into quiet, into soul-searching, into places where all of the noise and distraction and temptations fall away. Margaret’s friends, as if taking the wrong notes from the Book of Job, only offer her the counsel of consumerism: Let’s go shopping! She’d rather retreat to a job in a library… to read. She’ll open a Bible. She’ll go to a monastery in search of an old friend who, she suspects, might actually see her for who she is instead of who the world expects her to be. She’ll look for hope and healing in beauty and intimacy. And in doing so, she’ll get off the path of mass-produced, factory-approved American fakery and onto the path of faith.
Filmmaker Paul Harrill has made something quiet, observant, provocative, and quite contrary to the popular narrative of American love stories. He taps into deeper truths by zooming in on the suggestiveness of little things — like the way Margaret returns to the home that she has left, and the front door creaks as if she’s entering a haunted house; like the enchanting (and completely real) night world of fireflies he brings to the screen. The fireflies may seem to some like just a cool visual to enhance a quiet movie, but they’re much more. Margaret, like the fireflies, is finding that she must retreat into a sort of darkness, far away, where people would have to work hard to find her… and there, in that faraway darkness, she might just come to life, come to light, and rise.
It isn’t an exaggeration when I say that the subtlety and sensitivity of Ashley Shelton’s lead performance reminded me, at times, of Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue — which, by the way, is my favorite performance by an actress.
And speaking of monasteries, the monastery that Margaret visits is the first-ever movie shoot on the property of Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky famous for being the home of the beloved monk, mystic, and writer Thomas Merton. I should mention here that I have read more of Thomas Merton’s writings than any other writer, and I’ve been more powerfully blessed by his words than any other teacher. I sensed his spirit in every scene of this film.
And that may be the highest compliment that I can give this film: It’s profoundly contemplative in a way that reminds me of great films about faith, like the work of Robert Bresson, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Terrence Malick. I think Thomas Merton would have liked it. I’d recommend it as a prime example of how contemporary filmmakers can engage questions of faith. In a time when we hear so much hype in Christian circles about “the new wave of Christian movies” — only to find those movies to be preachy, mean-spirited, crass, and mediocre (at best) — I find very different adjectives coming to mind when I watch Something, Anything: It’s truthful. It’s affecting. It’s poetic. It’s profound. And it’s often very beautiful. I’m grateful.