Whenever I introduce my undergraduate students to the classic maternal melodrama, Stella Dallas, I always feel a little sad that they don’t like the protagonist as much as I do. Stella, played by the brilliant Barbara Stanwyck, is a young, working-class woman, who marries a much wealthier man named Stephen after some practical, strategic wooing. When she ultimately fails to fit into his upper-class world, and the couple separates, my students often take his side, seeing Stephen as a much more suitable parent for their daughter. For years I attributed this phenomenon to my students’ youth, speculating that when they were old enough, they’d better understand Stella’s complex situation, bound up in class expectations and the emotional turmoil of motherhood.
There might be some logic to this assumption I had been making, but I’ve come around to the idea that I’m being unfair to my students, and, just as significantly, unfair to cinema. Yes, we might find new ways to appreciate films as we age and learn, but is there really some benchmark one must reach in order to read a film legitimately? We might not truly know the lives of the people we see on screen, but the movies are willing and able to meet us halfway, helping us understand people and situations we might otherwise find inscrutable.
The film for this past Tuesday, Gifted, reminded me of that lesson about the cinema. It concerns a thirty-something man named Frank (Chris Evans) raising his seven-year-old math-prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in Tampa, Florida. Concerned that she needs to be socialized, he enrolls her in a regular first-grade class, even though the course material is far too simple for her. His worries stem from the fate of his math-genius sister, the child’s mother, who committed suicide at 27, when Mary was just a baby. His sister rarely experienced life outside of intellectual work, and Frank wants Mary to be spared such loneliness and depression. Conflict ensues when Frank’s absentee mother finds out about Mary’s skills, and she wants to sue him for custody of the child so that she can set her on his sister’s path of attempting to solve a mathematical puzzle that has stumped the world’s greatest minds.
The audience was fairly small this week, and most of the attendees were eager to go. One older woman clapped for the film enthusiastically, and I asked her what she especially liked about it. As a preface to her remarks, she asked me, “Do you have children?”
I confessed I had none, and she responded, “Well, then you couldn’t understand what it’s like to worry about doing the right thing for your kids.”
I must admit I was taken aback. I’ve had audiences who were sometimes skeptical that a film was offering a particular social commentary that I proposed, but this was the first time my personal life disqualified me from having a reaction to a film. I tried to recover by asking about how that experience shaped her perception of Gifted, but that led to a response in which she asked again if I had children. There wasn’t much left to discuss, sadly, as she and her husband were themselves getting ready to leave, not feeling invested in a longer conversation.
I don’t share this story out of mere self-pity or complaint, but because of the irony of the situation. I spent significant portions of the movie Gifted on the verge of tears, and this is not that unusual for me. Over five years of hosting films at SteelStacks, I’ve had a good cry over such films as Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Brooklyn, Lion, Persepolis, Philomena, Room, Amour, The Life of Pi, Sing Street, and Silver Linings Playbook. This is but a sampling. When it comes to melodrama, I have a stunning lack of chill.
When it’s time to host a talkback for such movies, my concern is not that I’ll be too distant from the material, but that I’ll be too swept up in it to be an effective discussion leader. Gifted was no exception. In this case, I was moved especially by a moment when young Mary was devastated to learn that her biological father, whom she had never met, was in town but that he had no interest in meeting her. In response to her despair, her uncle Frank brought her and their neighbor friend to a hospital maternity waiting room. Some time later, a man enters the room wearing scrubs and announces to his family, “It’s a boy!” As his family embraces him in sheer delight, Frank turns to Mary and tells her earnestly, “That’s how everyone looked the day you were born.” Mary’s face lights up, and she asks to stay for another birth announcement. When it happens, she joins a family of strangers in their group hug.
I never had the experience of becoming a parent, but the scene brought me back to memories of my late parents sharing stories of my birth. The details are foggy, but what I remember more than anything else was that they wanted to make me feel loved and wanted.
My personal experience made that scene particularly resonant, but the power of narrative cinema, of course, is to make us understand situations we’ve never experienced and people we’ve never met. There are so many characters in Gifted and in those films listed above whose experiences are far different from my own, but talented filmmakers find a way to let us see and comprehend their joys, their fears, and their pains.