Review: ‘Objects,’ starring Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Jad Abumrad, Josh Glenn and Rob Walker

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

“Objects”

Directed by Vincent Liota

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Objects” features a mostly white group of people (with a few Asians and one African American) discussing how objects are kept because of sentimental value.

Culture Clash: Most of the people in the documentary believe in the theory that someone’s trash could be someone else’s treasure.

Culture Audience: “Objects” will appeal primarily to people interested in a breezy but somewhat limited overview of why people hold on to things that other people might think are worthless and should be thrown away.

Rick Rawlins in “Objects” (Photo courtesy of Semicolon Pictures)

Everyone owns an object that might not have much monetary value, but there’s no price tag that can be put on how much that item means to the owner. The documentary “Objects” (which had its world premiere at the 2021 edition of DOC NYC in New York City) takes an entertaining look at sentimental attachments to possessions, with an emphasis on giving anecdotes instead of giving deep analysis. The documentary is charming but not very innovative in its presentation. Overall, the movie capably demonstrates how stories about possessions are not just reflections of people’s personalities but also how people have lived their lives.

Sentimental attachment to objects seems like a broad topic that’s too unwieldy to cover in a feature-length documentary. However, “Objects” has a total running time of just 63 minutes. That’s because “Objects” director Vincent Liota kept the narrative spotlight on three different items owned by three different people. The reasons why these three items have emotional value to their owners are explained in the documentary, which weaves these personal stories in between various commentaries and anecdotes about the pros and cons of holding on to mementos.

The three participants who get the memento spotlight are:

  • Rick Rawlins, a graphic designer in Massachusetts, has kept a sugar confection that looks like half of a yellow egg, since 1970. The sugar egg has sentimental value to him because it was given to him by a childhood acquaintance on that day Rawlins and his family moved away.
  • Heidi Julavits, a writer/professor in New York City, became obsessed with collecting the clothing of semi-famous French actress Isabelle Corey (who made movies from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s), when many of Corey’s personal items went up for sale on eBay after Corey died in 2011. Julavits has worn the clothes and is particularly fond of a cardigan sweater that used to be owned by Corey.
  • Robert Kurlwich, a National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent in New York City, has held on to a clump of grass that he took from New York City’s Central Park in 1962, when he was 15 years old. The grass is a memento of a teenage romantic experience that he had in the park with his girlfriend at the time.

Rawlins’ story about his beloved sugar egg is probably the tale that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings the most. He talks about how when he was a child, he came from a loving family, but his family moved around a lot from Washington state to Idaho because of his father’s job that required frequent transfers between the two states. Rawlins, who is soft-spoken and mild-mannered, describes himself as socially awkward as a child. All of the moving around that his family did made it harder for him to make friends.

In 1970, Rawlins was an 8-year-old in second grade when his family had to move again, from Washington state to Idaho. Rawlins says that one of the few kids who seemed interested in being his friend at the time was a classmate named David Turley, who invited Rawlins to his birthday party. The problem was that the birthday party was going to be on the same day that the Rawlins family was moving.

As Rawlins tells it, on the day of the move: “I just took off to say goodbye to David.” But when he got to the front door of the Turley family’s house, he remembers feeling at a loss for words, and he wouldn’t go inside. Turley came to the front door, and he gave Rawlins the sugar egg, which was obviously from the candy being served at the party.

Rawlins says he can’t remember if or what he said during that goodbye. But he ran back home and held on to the egg. And during the car drive when moving away, Rawlins says, he still held on to the egg, almost like it was a good luck charm. He adds,”I put it in the drawer, and it has lived in various places for all these years.” The wooden box where Rawlins keeps the egg has its own special story, which Rawlins shares later in the film.

Rawlins comments in the documentary about why this sugar egg means so much to him: “It was immediately clear to me, the moment I got this egg, I knew exactly what it meant, and it hasn’t changed. It was proof—physical proof—that I had been invited to a birthday party, and there was hope of making a friendship. And I held on to it because I needed that proof.”

Rawlins is very laid-back in how he expresses himself. By contrast, Julavits has a lot of restless energy, She’s an admitted eccentric who likes being a pack rat, but she’s not a dangerous hoarder. Of the three memento keepers who get the spotlight in this documentary, she’s the one with the best sense of humor, which can be sarcastic and self-deprecating. She gives a tour of her cluttered home, where she proudly admits she has a hard time throwing items away that remind her of things she’s done and people she loves or admires.

Julavits thinks that every object, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a story behind it. For her, clutter is not clutter but “narrative history.” For example, she keeps an office desk full of random things, such as ticket stubs and drawings made by her daughter, in addition to the usual office supplies. Nothing is arranged neatly. She also doesn’t like the idea of putting her collection of books in any particular order.

More than once, Julavits mentions that she likes the thrill of going hunting for things because she usually ends up finding something else that she wants more than the thing she was originally seeking. She talks about how she once lost a sweater in a public outdoor area. She was so sure that someone would sell it on eBay, she spent hours looking for it on eBay. This search led to her discovering other things she wanted to get on eBay, including Corey’s collection of clothes and other personal items.

There’s a very funny section of the documentary where de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo is brought up in the conversation. Julavits (who obviously doesn’t believe in de-cluttering) talks about Kondo and then spends a significant amount of time trying to find Kondo’s bestselling self-help book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in her home. It’s quite a challenge because Julavits keeps books in boxes and bags in addition to having them on bookshelves. Kondo wouldn’t approve of this clutter, but Julavits doesn’t care. Julavits says her own way of “sparking joy” (a phrase that Kondo likes to use) is to collect things, not throw them out.

As for Julavits’ fixation on French actress Corley, she says that she literally got so wrapped up in wearing Corley’s wardrobe, Julavits admits that there was a point in time when she would only wear Corley’s clothes. Some items from this wardrobe are shown in the documentary. Corley also tried to find other items Corley owned when Julavits was in Europe. And she wanted to solve the mystery of why Corley’s career as an actress suddenly stopped after the early 1960s.

Julavits also says she became determined to find out the identity of the person who was selling Corley’s possessions on eBay, which had it listed as an estate sale. The seller initially ignored Julavits’ personal email inquiries to find out the seller’s identity. However, Julavits eventually got a reply and discovered who the seller was, as well as more about Corley’s personal history.

Why does she have fixation on this relatively obscure actress? Julavits doesn’t give a direct answer, but it has a lot to do with just liking Corley’s personal style and being intrigued that this actress just abruptly dropped out of showbiz. Julavits says that in trying to find out more information about Corley, she imagined all sorts of scenarios about Corley’s life, and that made the “treasure hunt” more fun for Julavits.

Krulwich’s story about his memento grass is the least-interesting of the three stories, probably because it just begins and ends with a vague retelling of how he was in love with a girl at 15 (he doesn’t name her in the documentary), and they had a special moment on that grass. “It was a genuinely deep thrill to me as a 15-year-old,” Krulwich says. He talks about how seeing and holding this dead grass can bring back the euphoric memories of being a 15-year-old in love.

Krulwich is a former host of NPR’s “Radiolab” series, where he and “Radiolab” host Jad Abumrad (who’s also in the documentary) would talk about random objects owned by people and the sentimental reasons why people would keep these objects. In the production notes for “Objects,” director Liota says the idea to do this documentary was inspired by a 2014 conversation that he had with Krulwich about the topic. “We mused about how we had saved objects for years that seemed precious to us, yet had no intrinsic value,” Liota comments in the “Objects” production notes.

“Objects” could have used more diversity in the types of people who were interviewed. Most of the people interviewed are college-educated, middle-aged or elderly white people, mostly from the East Coast. It seems like Liota limited the participants to people he knows or people who were recommended by people he knows. The documentary appears to have been made for people who listen to NPR and read The New Yorker.

There’s a somewhat contrived part of the documentary that shows NPR staffers gathered in a meeting to discuss bringing in Rawlins’ sugar egg to do a 3-D print replica, so he could have a “backup” egg. Things don’t exactly go as planned. It’s enough to say that something goes awry with these plans. How this problem is handled is one of the best parts of the movie.

“Objects” has some dramatic re-enactments (with actors) of the childhood stories of Rawlins and Krulwich. And the documentary has some quick comments from people such as anthropologist Arianna Huhn, author Margaret Bynum Hill and professor Eri Yasuhara, who share their opinions on sentimental objects. As a counterpoint, there are videoclips from news and entertainment shows of people talking about how clutter makes people’s lives messier and worse. Many of these comments seem to be filler and don’t add much to the overall documentary.

However, there’s an interesting segment with Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, who co-founded the Significant Objects Project. It’s an experiment where Glenn and Walker bought 100 items that each cost $4 or less. They contacted several well-known writers (including Neil LaBute, Meg Cabot and Tom McCarthy) to come up with a story about any of these items. (Julavits was one of the writers too.) And then, the items were sold with the story.

The point of the Significant Objects Project is to show that when people think an item has a meaningful story behind it, the item increases in value in many people’s minds. As proof, Glenn and Walker say that the 100 items they bought for a total $128.74 ended up being sold for a total of $3,612.51. The item that made the biggest profit was a ceramic figurine of a man wearing traditional Russian garb. The figurine (whose story was created by writer Doug Dorst) was purchased for $3 and sold for $193.50, according to Glenn and Walker.

“Objects” could have gone a little further in its exploration of the three treasured mementos that get the spotlight in the documentary. For example, whatever happened to David Turley, who gave Rawlins the sugar egg? And what about the unnamed girlfriend who had that amorous encounter with Krulwich in Central Park? If they’re still alive, what would they think about Rawlins and Krulwich holding on to these mementos for so many decades? It would’ve been interesting to track them down and see their reactions, if possible.

As it stands, “Objects” is mostly delightful to watch because of the storytelling aspect of the movie. Don’t expect to see any data for psychology or sociology, because this movie is more about celebrating the subjective aspects of life. The documentary is narrowly focused on certain types of people sharing their stories, but there’s something in each story that most viewers can find relatable.