International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

On Coming of Age Movies. Films Reviewed: An Education, Fish Tank

Coming of age themes have been around for a long time, but they’re still popular. You probably already know all about this, but it’s the old story of a young man faced with a dilemma or an unrequited love, or an opponent or a hard to reach goal… that he eventually overcomes – or not – but ends up somehow learning from it, and growing up a bit. Think of movies ranging from Breaking Away and Old Yeller, to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Lean on Me, and The Outsiders, to more recent ones like L.I.E. and Igby Goes Down, or even Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which just opened.

These kind of movies are fun to watch because you get to experience the new discoveries, fresh views, amd the adventures that the hero is going through for the first time; as opposed to a "slice of life" movie where everything is the same, not new.

Well, coming of age stories have been talked about a lot over the past year, mainly because of the death of two of the most famous proponents of that theme – I mean, of course, the late JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye, and the director and writer John Hughes, known for his teen comedies in the 1980’s.

Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield is a rebellious, troubled teenager who runs away from a boarding school, to get away from all the phoniness, cliquishness, and superficiality he saw there. Some people were so moved by this novel that they said it changed their life. (I’m not one of those people, but I did like the novel when I first read it.) There’s even a rumour of a movie version, now that the reclusive writer — who always resisted that — is dead.

Another kind of coming-of-age story was the hallmark of the much-loved "icon of the ’80’s" John Hughes. There’s been a great outpouring of grief over the end of his innocent, young rebels in movies like 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club.

Well, It’s always sad when people die young, but John Hughes was an awful director with a non-stop stream of terrible, conservative, faux-rebel dreck, who co-opted fake punk/ new wave fashions to make his nasty, small-town characters seem more hip.

He was unsympathetic to the nerdy characters and the outcasts, and instead seemed to glorify bullying, and promote conformity. "Losers" were not doing well, but it was their own
fault. Ferris Bueller, the rich, successful and popular teenager (from Hughes’s best movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decides one day — brimming with smirking entitlement — to do whatever he wants… because he can. Ferris Bueller was a Reagan-ish personification of US exceptionalism.

Expensive cars were what was really important. Women were treated to a backslide to the 1950’s, Happy Days-style, as if the feminist movement had never happened.

His movies later devolved even more with the Home Alone series, where a brat gets to run rampant out of greed and self-centredness, as long as he is juxtaposed against even more "evil" villains — meaning losers who "deserve" to lose.

In the world of coming of age movies, I think it’s fair to call John Hughes the Anti-Salinger.

But opposite though those archetypes may be, Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller do share one trait – they’re both teenaged boys, not girls. You see, coming of age stories about young women are a much rarer breed.

Let’s look at two current, female, coming-of-age movies.

An Education, by Danish Director Lone Scherfig, tells the story of Jenny, an English school girl in the early sixties whose father wants her to get into Oxford. That’s her only goal. She’s 16, smart, pretty, and middle class, but longs for the great things in life. She meets a much older man, David. He’s a bit sleazy, a bit louche, but to Jenny he’s glamorous and important with jaded friends who take her on cultural adventures away from her suburban town. He’s going to take her away, to take her to Paris. Eventually reality sets in and she’s forced to deal with unanticipated problems and twists.

This is an enjoyable movie, with a good story, and great acting, especially Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and it’s been nominated for an Academy award for best picture.

The only problem is that it’s a little too soft and fluffy and nice, and even its touches of bitter reality seem tinged with more nostalgia than grit. I kept expecting Hugh Grant to pop his head into a scene and say “Ooh sorry, I must be in the wrong picture…” It just has that feel to it. But it’s a good movie anyway.

Another British coming of age picture is Fish Tank, Directed by Andrea Arnold, which opens today.

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high rise council flat. She has an unspoken sense of justice: punish the bad, help the needy, free the enslaved. Her hobbies seem to be drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing little things, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to become a dancer) She can find her way, unseen, through vacant lots and empty apartments, but she’s still strangely naïve about how people get along in the real world.

Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

Early in the movie Fish Tank, Connor drives his new family out to a hidden piece of land. Mia follows him into the water while her mother stands disapprovingly on the shore. He reaches into the pond and pulls out a trusting fish with his bare hands, just like that. Then he pierces it with a skewer. The movie’s full of unforgettable scenes that carry the story along. (In fact all the scenes are unforgettable)

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, (who played IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in the movie Hunger) as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is. Beautifully shot, this movie just blew me away.

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