Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mourning in the American 'Wild' and the Irish 'Sea': Double Feature Review

Late December is often a time of great celebration. No matter what your faith or customs may be, there's always an extra emphasis on enjoying time with our loved ones this season, as we prepare to close the book on one year and eagerly welcome another.

But, inevitably, the closing out of the year also becomes a time of solemn reflection, to remember what we've lost while cherishing what we still have. 2014 somehow feels like a disproportionately painful year for the filmmaking community; The tragic premature deaths of geniuses like Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman punctuating an already long list of cinema giants who finally left us after significant, fruitful lives.

Perhaps that's why it's been so much on my mind as I've frequented the movies this year. I don't want to be responsible for giving anyone a case of the holiday blues, but it's been impossible for me not to notice a similar thread running through a number of 2014's major releases; A thread about the way people deal with loss, process grief, and ultimately find closure; A thread about how mourning varies from individual to individual, yet is universally human.

A pair of distinctive and radically different films that are currently in limited release, Wild and Song of the Sea, suddenly seem like distant cousins when viewed through this thematic prism.
The former tells the true story of a young woman – best-selling memoirist Cheryl Strayed – as she hikes the rigourous Pacific Crest Trail. The latter is a stylized animated fable that makes imaginative use of Irish folklore to take its audience on a fantastical journey involving fairies, witches, and the mythical selkies (women who take the form of seals underwater).

Besides the superficial coincidence that both Wild and Song of the Sea are somewhat under-the-radar followups from recent Oscar nominees Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells) respectively, there doesn't appear to be much in common between the two. But a closer look reveals the counter-intuitive similarities that make them such fascinating companion pieces.

On a purely narrative level, both are journey movies, in which our heroes must embark on a long-distance trek that, despite the many perils and obstacles en route, will ultimately challenge their psychological mettle more than their physical stamina.
In Wild, we first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) as she sets out on her ambitious – some would say 'foolhardy' – backpacking expedition from Mexico to British Columbia along the PCT. She is comically dwarfed by her gargantuan backpack (cheekily christened “Monster” by some fellow hikers), but it only hints at the emotional baggage she's towing.

In truth, Cheryl is reeling in the wake of the death of her beloved mother Bobbi (beautifully played by the vivacious Laura Dern). Bobbi's untimely and tragically brief battle with cancer has left Cheryl a caustic mess of agony and emptiness; An emptiness she had tried to fill for years with brain-numbing substances and anonymous sex.

None of this is revealed to us chronologically, but through a meandering and organic potpourri of images and sounds. As we track Cheryl's progress along the trail, the things she sees and hears trigger memories from her past that then flash before us; Sometimes in fragmented collage, sometimes more lingering and dreamlike; Childhood recollections of her abusive father, quiet moments of bonding with her mother, a sad-looking horse, the dulcet murmur of 'I Can Never Go Home Anymore' by the Shangri-Las...
Over the course of the film, we piece together the significance of these and dozens of other sensations (artfully assembled by Vallée, co-editor Martin Pensa, and sound designer Ai-Ling Lee) that come to paint a disjointed but complete portrait of who Cheryl is, why her mother's death was so shattering, and how her solo hike becomes such a cathartic experience.

Through this brilliantly mapped out stream-of-consciousness approach, screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) wrangles an introspective character study out of what could have been a mere human interest story. It is arguably his finest work yet in the visual medium, and merits serious awards consideration.

Witherspoon (who also co-produced the film) is likely in the hunt for an Oscar nomination herself for her performance. She evokes the evolving brittleness and disenchantment of Cheryl's character at various stages of her life before, during, and after Bobbi's passing (credit Oscar-winning makeup artist Robin Mathews with the assist). While she plays Cheryl with a welcome, sardonic sense of humour that keeps the tone from ever becoming too heavy, she never lets us forget the inner child that's wailing in anguish within her.
As for Song of the Sea, our hero still is a child, though the feelings he struggles to digest are no less complex than Cheryl's. Ben (voiced by David Rawle) was close with his mother too, who would stimulate his sense of wonder with fairy tales and lore about a secret community of magical creatures living right under their noses.

After she dies giving birth to her daughter Saoirse, Ben becomes moody and distant, and a callous bully to his new little sister who still hasn't learned to talk six years later. To make matters worse, the kids' worrywart grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) insists on moving them away from their isolated lighthouse home to live under her watchful eye in the city, leaving their father (Brendan Gleeson) to mourn in solitude.

Stubborn young Ben stages a getaway and intends to head home, but when it's discovered that little Saoirse is actually a selkie (and that his mother's bedtime stories were true!), his escape plan turns into a bizarre odyssey: The fairy tale creatures are in danger from being turned to stone by a mysterious owl witch, and only the selkie's song can free them... if Ben can help Saoirse find her voice.
What Moore and his screenwriter Will Collins have managed to fashion out of ancient Celtic myth is in fact quite remarkable, though deceptive in its simplicity. Song of the Sea is clearly geared towards children, but it never takes them by the hand or explicitly spells out the nuance of the film's characters.

Instead, it presents its moral as an allegory, and trusts its young audience to be perceptive enough to glean the meaning from it. It's enough to make one reconsider simply calling it a great childrens movie. A great movie is a great movie, no matter who the target audience. No need for qualifiers. If Moore makes another one like this we'll have to start calling him the Irish Miyazaki.

Though obviously less woven in reality than the travels of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, the symbolic journey walked by Ben in Song of the Sea treads on the exact same emotional ground. He too is confronted with sights and sounds that recall his late mother, especially in the form of her old seashell flute that mute Saoirse now uses to communicate.

Ben also learns, as Cheryl does in time, that denying yourself the pain of loss is not the same as getting over it. For Cheryl, her drug/sex-filled sabbatical was certainly less a form a healing than a form of stasis. For Ben, the lesson is learned through the metaphor of the owl witch: If we don't allow ourselves to experience all of life's feelings, happy and sad, we ossify and turn to stone. That can be a tough one for kids to wrap their minds around, but the point is made as boldly there as it is in the R-rated Wild.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that both movies are absolute, jaw-on-the-floor stunners to look at!

Wild cinematographer Yves Bélanger captures the rugged beauty of some of America's most breath-taking territory, but wisely never succumbs to romanticizing it. That would be counter-productive to the story being told, after all.

Meanwhile, artistic director Adrien Merigeau makes Song of the Sea possibly the most visually arresting cinema of the year. The hard lines and exquisite colour palette fill every frame with dazzling designs, and the combination of traditional hand-drawn and computer-aided techniques allow the animators to render them with gorgeous “lighting”.
Perhaps, some of you may be thinking, these comparisons are a stretch. Perhaps the coupling of Wild and Song of the Sea is too atypical to make much sense. Perhaps either one of them could be more appropriately paired with any of a number of other 2014 efforts that explore the idea of loss in more complex ways; Interstellar, The Babadook, Still Alice, Two Days One Night, Gone Girl, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and The Grand Budapest Hotel are just some examples of titles that can fit the mold.

But the most resonant quality shared between these two films, and these two films specifically, is the comforting affirmation that things get better. Healing takes time – sometimes an achingly long time, represented in these movies by journey metaphors – but it's time spent inching closer and closer towards an all-important end point: Acceptance.

That's a valuable message to remember, not just this year, but any year moving forward. There are rough seas and rocky terrain ahead, but meet your fears, suffer through your pain, and at your journey's end you may find sweet release.

Wild - ***1/2
Song of the Sea - ****


  1. Well, damn. Didn't expect you to like the films THAT MUCH, but good on you! So much for HTTYD2 winning the Nazi Award... but again, it's not my choice.

    By the way, you keep calling it 2013. It's 2014, buddy!

    1. So it is. Oscar seasons start blurring together at my age.

  2. I think i never saw a post from you that as emotionally and personally perceptive, especially the concluding part. i couldn't agree more as to how you put things on this post. Two well-made and executed movies.