1 Little Women (1994)
I saw this film for the first time when I was ten. The film tells the familiar story of the March girls, living in New England during the Civil War. The second child, Jo, the tomboy, serves as the centerpiece of the film, as she does in the book. The bond between the sisters is genuine, warm, and at times heartbreaking.
Still, the movie captures the book’s lighthearted moments as well. I love the scene as the girls go upstairs on Christmas Eve. They sing “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” kiss their mother good night, and go to bed. The affection and love between the mother and sisters feels so real in that exchange, and at the same time very joyful. The girls know they will not have many, if any, presents, the next day, due to the Civil War. Indeed, the next day, they don’t even eat their Christmas dinner, choosing instead to donate the entire feast to a starving family. And yet, they are completely happy and content in their existence.
The one fault I have for this movie is that the end of the film lacks some of that joy. Of course, that could be how I remembered the film as a child. First of all, I was disappointed to see Kirsten Dunst replaced by another actress to play older Amy. Also, I did not care that Jo March ended up with Gabriel Byrne. (I care far more now.) At that time, the death of poor, sweet, fragile Beth, seemed to me to permanently break the family. Yes, the girls acquire husbands (and in Meg’s case children), but who cares? I remember when Jo laments “Will we ever be together again?” and I thought, “No, Beth is dead.”
I might see the film differently now. Yes, Beth’s death would likely leave a gaping hole in the family, but I also understand that families change. Little Women grow into fully grown women. In the process, they may acquire husbands and children, and the makeup of the family and their relationships change. But no doubt I would still appreciate the warm family relations and the gorgeous period costumes.
2 Winter’s Bone
Winter’s Bone tells the story of the Ozark range in Missouri, a region of the country most of would rather forget even exists. Indeed, I know almost nothing about the Ozarks, though I was stunned to see how much it reminds me of West Virginia, or at least the West Virginia that exists in the minds of most Ohioans. We think of West Virginia as a poor, backwards place, full of fighting, moonshine, and possibly inbreeding. These stereotypes seem to play out in Winter’s Bone. The difference is, instead of moonshine, the drug of choice is crystal meth.
Breaking Bad was accused of glamorizing the world of crystal meth, or at least covering over the ugliness of the drug. Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, shows the devastation that this drug can cause by focusing on the plight of its young heroine, Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence. When her estranged father fails to show up for his court date, Ree threatens to lose the house, her only means of supporting her younger brother and sister. She must navigate a a difficult, seedy community in an attempt to find her father, dead or alive. She is very much at a disadvantage, a teenager dealing with adults more than twice her age; a woman in a very patriarchal community. One of the women she meets asks her “Don’t you have no men who can do this for her?” She answers, “No ma’am, it’s just me.”
This film was Jennifer Lawrence’s first Oscar nomination, just before she was cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games. Her character is very much like Katniss, hard, young, in an impossible situation. What I find most fascinating about this movie though, is the fact that this film takes place in a forgotten region of America, and tells the story of forgotten people. A newspaper in Britain (I can’t remember which one) had an insightful comment about the film. “It shows the scope of stories that are possible in America.”
3 Rabbit Proof Fence
When I was in South Korea in 2007, I turned on the TV one morning before work. I was stunned to see a member of the Australian government offer an apology for The Stolen Generations, the biracial aboriginal children who were taken from their mothers. The Australians were concerned that these partially white children were being raised as aborigines, and as a result, they removed these children from their homes and sent them to education centers where they were educated to be domestic servants.
Rabbit Proof Fence tells the story of three young girls who decided to go home. The main character, Molly, takes her sister and cousin and decides to follow the rabbit proof fence (the fence that protected the farm land from the rabbits, apparently the longest fence in the world) back to their home and mother.
The film is told by an Australian director, Phillip Noyce. It was a difficult decision for him to adapt this film, he is a white Australian telling an aboriginal story. (There would be a similar dynamic for a white director telling a story about Native American reservation.) However, the effect is very moving. The young actresses, all aboriginal children who had never acted before, are very endearing. The film also has a wonderful soundtrack and a great visual style, and sheds light on a people that are rarely seen on film.