Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Master Gardener” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A horticulturist at an elite garden estate gets emotionally involved with the grand-niece of his wealthy employer, while he tries to move on from his criminal past as a murderous white supremacist.
Culture Audience: “Master Gardener” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver; filmmaker Paul Schrader; and solidly acted movies about people seeking redemption through reinvention.
“Master Gardner” has a simmering intensity that show signs of boiling over into an intensely memorable film, but the movie puts restraints on itself. This restraint is not going to satisfy many people who see this movie, which is mostly about two people who are trying to forget their past while they have a growing attraction to each other. Some of the dialogue and scenarios are a little too trite for what this drama is trying to say about redemption, but the story and performances overall have enough to maintain the interest of most viewers. Some viewers might expect more melodrama and more suspense.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, “Master Gardener” (which was filmed on location in New Orleans) has a trailer that reveals about 80% of the movie’s plot. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival, before making its way to other film festivals that year, including the New York Film Festival. It’s a movie that falls right in with Schrader’s pattern of directing films about somber male loners who are looking for some kind of redemption. (See 2018’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter.”)
In “Master Gardener,” middle-aged bachelor Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton) has a solitary and quiet life as the live-in horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, located on a lavish estate. Narvel supervises a small staff of about four people. His employer is the haughty and demanding Norma Haverhill (played by Sigourney Weaver), the sole owner of the estate.
Narvel is not a highly educated or intellectual person, but he is a very knowledgeable horiculturist. In the beginning of the movie, he’s seen looking at pictures of flowers and gardens in the bedroom of his modest guest house on Norma’s property. In voiceover narration, he recites the differences between French gardens (also known as formal gardens), English gardens (also known as informal gardens) and wild gardens.
In this voiceover narration, Narvel shares his philosophy on horticulture: “Gardening is a belief in the future—a belief that things will happen to plan, that change will come in due time.” Narvel is not someone who is talkative or who shows his emotions easily, except when he’s talking about gardening. It’s his passion, and he lights up whenever he gets a chance to talk about anything related to gardening.
Narvel channels his energy into being the best gardener that he could possibly be. However, as already revealed in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel has a very ugly past: He used to belong to a white supremacist militia group. And he used to murder people just because they weren’t white. Narvel also murdered people in his own white supremacist group if any of them did something that angered him. Narvel’s chest and back are covered with tattoos, including multiple Nazi swastikas on his back.
Flashbacks and current scenes reveal that Narvel ended up becoming a star witness in the prosecution of many of his former cronies in the militia group. As a result, Narvel went into the FBI’s witness protection program, where he got an entirely new name and identity. Narvel’s birth name is briefly mentioned at one point in the movie. The FBI agent who has been assigned to keep in touch with Narvel is Oscar Neruda (played by Esai Morales), who has built a trustworthy relationship with Narvel.
Very few people in Narvel’s current life know about his disturbing past. Norma knows that Narvel is an ex-con, but she doesn’t really want to know the details. Every year, Gracewood Gardens has a big spring charity auction on the premises. One day, Norma tells Narvel that this year’s auction will probably be her last because she’s having some “health issues.” (Norma doesn’t elaborate, and Narvel doesn’t ask for more information.)
Norma does not have any children, so her thoughts have been preoccupied with who will take over Gracewood Gardens if she is dead or unable to oversee the estate for other reasons. She wants to keep the property in the family. Norma tells Narvel that she has invited her estranged grand-niece Maya Core (played by Quintessa Swindell) to live and work on the estate. Narvel has been tasked with teaching Maya how to be a horticulturist.
Norma explains to Narvel that Maya is the daughter of Norma’s deceased niece, who was also named Norma. Norma Jr., who died of a drug overdose, was the daughter of Norma Sr.’s sister Betty. Maya, who is in her 20s, grew up in a single-parent household, dropped out of school. and “fell in a with a bad crowd,” according to Norma. Maya’s father is described as a deadbeat dad, who abandoned Norma Jr. and Maya when Maya was very young.
During this apprenticeship, Maya lives in a small guest house on the property. Norma tells Narvel that Maya will be given a minimum-wage salary and car service. Maya will have to provide her own lunch when she’s on the job. Norma says that Maya will get incremental raises to her salary. Norma is subtly racist and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the fact that Maya is biracial. (Maya’s father is apparently African American.)
When Maya arrives at the estate, Narvel is cordial and professional with her. Norma avoids interacting with Maya as much as possible. As far as Norma is concerned, Maya is someone who is “the help,” not a family member whom Norma fully accepts. Norma thinks that Maya needs to earn her trust and at least become a skilled gardener if Norma is ever going to consider leaving any care of Gracewood Gardens to Maya. Norma eventually invites Maya to have dinner with her and Narvel inside the estate’s main house, but control freak Norma has chosen the dress that she wants Maya to wear during this dinner.
Narvel soon finds out that Maya has a drug problem, just like Maya’s mother. Although it’s never shown in flashbacks, Narvel has a history of drug abuse too. He lives a very clean and sober life now, but he and Maya both easily figure out that they’re no strangers to drug use. Maya’s risky lifestyle ends up catching up to her, and Narvel gets involved in her problems.
What isn’t really shown in the trailer for “Master Gardener” is that Maya has been trying to avoid two sleazy drug dealers who hang out with each other. The leader of this duo is Robbie Gomez, nicknamed R.G. (played by Jared Bankens), who was also the drug dealer for Maya’s mother. R.G.’s sidekick is a guy named Sissy (played by Matt Mercurio), who is R.G.’s constant companion. R.G. is very possessive of Maya and is practically stalking her.
Maya was living in a run-down, crime-ridden area before she moved to Norma’s estate. Maya doesn’t tell Narvel the details of her relationship with R.G., but she insists that R.G. is not her boyfriend. Based on the way R.G. is acting, it’s implied that Maya has a history of having sex with R.G. for drugs, but he wants to control her like a possessive lover. And when Maya shows up to work one day with fight injuries on her face and confesses to Narvel that R.G. caused those injuries, it’s also very easy to predict how Narvel will react when he sees R.G. and Sissy.
As already shown in the “Master Gardener” trailer, Narvel gets romantically involved with Maya, but it doesn’t happen right away. At first, he resists Maya’s attempts to seduce him, partly because he doesn’t want to get in trouble for crossing certain boundaries, and partly because he doesn’t want Maya to see his neo-Nazi tattoos. But eventually, Maya and Narvel become sexually intimate, after he tells her that he used to be a racist. This sexual consummation scene is meant to show Narvel completely vulnerable and submissive to Maya, as a way to contrast with the life he used to have as a violent white supremacist.
It’s a complicated situation for Narvel, because he has been having sex with Norma, who considers their sexual trysts as part of his job requirement. It will make some viewers uncomfortable to see the messiness of these boss-subordinate sexual relationships, with big age gaps for these sex partners. However, “Master Gardener” isn’t intended to be a glossy romance story. If Norma finds out about Narvel and Maya’s growing affection for each other, things might not end well for Narvel and Maya. This part of the movie is very easy to predict.
What the movie conveys with considerable autheticity is how lonely and emotionally damaged people find ways to connect with each other. Narvel, Maya and Norma are each struggling with their personal issues. And each person, in his or her own way, is trying to put up a façade of “I can handle it” toughness. Maya and Narvel’s relationship doesn’t come across as “soul mates forever,” but more like, “I want to be with this person at this point in my life, and we’ll see what happens.”
Edgerton’s performance might strike some viewers as being very dull, but it’s actually a very accurate depiction of someone who has had to numb his emotions for a very long time. Considering that Narvel had to completely change his identity, there’s a somewhat silent identity crisis that Narvel goes through in the movie. Maya awakens some feelings in Narvel that Narvel hasn’t had for a very long time. And he’s decided he’s not going to run away from those feelings.
As for Maya, her personality is combination of being street-smart and being immature. Swindell’s performance looks authentic in how she portrays this complex character. The title of the movie is “Master Gardener,” so everything is told from Narvel’s perspective. However, the movie could have explored a little more about Maya and the life she had before she met Narvel. Weaver is solid in her role as prickly Norma, but Weaver has played this type of domineering snob many times before in other movies.
“Master Gardener” has some fantasy sequences involving flowers blooming in a heightened reality that’s almost psychedelic. These whimsical scenes don’t quite fit the gritty tone of the rest of the story. It’s also an uneven film, in terms of how much it wants to reveal about Narvel’s past. Viewers find out if Narvel ever got married or had children before his identity was changed.
The main reason why “Master Gardener” doesn’t sink into complete mediocrity is the principal cast members’ talent in handling their scenes. Ultimately, “Master Gardener” is worth watching as a character study of a violent ex-con who can’t entirely leave his thug ways behind. However, the movie doesn’t have much that’s insightful about the extreme changes in lifestyle and mindset that Narvel had to go through to become a former racist.
Magnolia Pictures released “Master Gardener” in select U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, from 1968 to 1973, the dramatic film “Call Jane” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A lawyer’s wife becomes involved with the Jane network, a group of mostly women who provided abortion services in the Chicago area when it was illegal at the time.
Culture Audience: “Call Jane” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, as well as people interested in dramatic movies about what life was like for middle-class women in the late 1960s to early 1970s, before the Roe vs. Wade case in 1973 that gave federal legal protection for abortion in the United States.
“Call Jane,” a drama that takes place from 1968 to 1973, is both a look back into the past and a look into the present and future of anyone who cannot get access to a safe and legal abortion in the United States. When “Call Jane” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year, abortion had federal legal protection in the U.S., ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade case in 1973. In June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, with the court’s decision allowing individual states to determine their respective abortion laws.
“Call Jane” is told from the perspective of a fictional, middle-class woman who gets involved in the Jane network, an underground abortion network in Chicago, beginning in 1968, when she sought a illegal abortion for herself. Some of the comedic moments in “Call Jane” are awkwardly placed, and a few of the characters become dangerously close to being parodies. However, the movie is intriguing overall in portraying a pre-Roe v. Wade female perspective of abortion in the U.S.
Directed by Phyllis Nagy, “Call Jane” uses a lot of fact-based elements of the real-life Jane network and blends them into a story with fictional characters. The 2019 film “Ask for Jane” (written and directed by Rachel Carey) did the same thing, but “Call Jane” has a much higher caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera than “Ask for Jane.” Both films have flaws and are centered primarily on white, middle-class women, when the reality is that women of various demographics used the abortion services of the Jane network. However, “Call Jane” (written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi) is a better movie overall in every way and doesn’t look like a mediocre made-for-TV film in the way that “Ask for Jane” does.
In “Call Jane,” the main protagonist is Joy Griffin (played by Elizabeth Banks), a homemaker and wife of an attorney named Will (played by Chris Messina), who works in criminal justice. Joy and Will live in Chicago, and they have a teenage daughter named Charlotte (played by Grace Edwards), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. At the beginning of the movie, it’s 1968, and Joy is pregnant.
The movie’s opening scene shows Joy and Will are leaving a lawyers’ convention which has a police barricade outside because of anti-Vietnam War protestors outside. Joy sees police brutality against the protestors as she and Will drive off. He comments with some relief that Charlotte is too young to get involved in the anti-war, anti-establishment movement. Little does Will know that Joy will soon become involved in a “radical” movement of her own.
Joy thinks that she has an ideal life. She has a good and loving family. She helps her husband with his legal briefs. “Honey, you make me sound like Clarence Darrow,” Will says appreciatively.
One of Joy’s best friends is her neighbor Lana (played by Kate Mara), a widow whose daughter Erin (played by Bianca D’Ambrosio) is a friend of Charlotte’s. Lana identifies as a conservative Republican. It’s hinted that Joy is also a registered Republican, but Joy likes to think of herself as more open-minded and more liberal than most Republican mothers.
Things take a turn in Joy’s life one day, when she is dancing with Charlotte in the kitchen to a Velvet Underground song when Joy suddenly collapses. She’s rushed to a hospital, where she gets a grim diagnosis: Her pregancy is causing her to have cardiomyopathy (congestive heart failure), and the doctor says the only medical treatment to stop it would be to have an abortion.
However, in Chicago in 1968, abortion is legal only if it is approved by an authorized board of medical professionals. In Joy’s case, the decision is made by an all-male group of doctors. She’s told that she has a 50% chance of living if she does not terminate the pregnancy. The doctors vote unanimously to not approve the abortion.
Joy doesn’t get much help from Dr. Campbell (played by Joel Brady), her obstetrician/gynecologist, who tells her that another option to get a legal abortion would be for Joy to pretend that she’s suicidal. Dr. Campbell would then get notes from psychiatrists to approve the abortion. Dr. Campbell’s secretary has an even more dangerous suggestion: “Just fall down a staircase. It worked for me.” Fearing that she will die as a result of the pregnancy, a desperate Joy goes to a seedy abortion place in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, but she backs out of the abortion, because she feels that the abortion will be botched by the unsavory people who are in charge.
Joy then finds out about the Jane network through flyers posted on a street. The flyers say, “Pregnant? Anxious? Get Help! Call Jane.” Joy calls the phone number on the flyer, and she discovers that the Jane network offers confidential and anonymous abortions. Because everything is illegal in this process, Joy sees firsthand that the paranoia and precautions involved in the Jane network are on the level of a well-coordinated spy network. People uses aliases and code names and are driven to secretive locations for the abortions.
Joy is terrified during her abortion, but after it’s over, she is surprised and relieved by the counseling and comfort that she receives from the women in the network. During her abortion experience, Joy meets several of the Jane network’s key players. They include strong-willed feminist leader Virginia (played by Sigourney Weaver), who founded the Jane network; outspoken Gwen (played by Wunmi Mosaku), who drove Joy to the abortion location; and compassionate Maeve (played by Evangeline Young), who is among the first women in the group to advocate for the Jane network to offer free abortions to women who can’t afford their price.
The only man who’s part of the network is an abortionist named Dean (played by Cory Michael Smith), who says he’s a doctor with training in obstetrics and gynecology. He is the person who performed the abortion on Joy. Dean’s bedside manner is often arrogant and abrupt to the women who are in his care, but the Jane network relies on him because none of the women in the group has medical training. Later in the story, Dean demands more money for his payment, so the women have to decide how much they need Dean to be a part of their group.
After talking to the members of the Jane network, Joy finds out how much help they need, and she decides to become a part of the network as a volunteer. Joy’s intention is to help other women, many of whom are even more desperate to have an abortion than Joy was. Joy keeps her Jane network activities a secret from everyone she knows who is not part of the network.
At first, Joy lies to Will by saying that she’s taking an art class, to explain her absences when she would usually be at home. When Will complains to Joy that she isn’t spending as much time at home like she used to do, Joy responds by saying, “I need to be with other people who think and do.” The trailer for “Call Jane” already revealed that Will finds out about Joy’s involvement in the Jane network. Will is concerned about Joy going to jail and worried about losing his attorney license if people discover that he knew about Joy’s illegal activities and did nothing about it.
“Call Jane” has some hokey “rah rah feminism” type of dialogue that sounds like made-for-TV slogans instead of realistic conversations. One thing that “Call Jane” does a much better job of portraying than “Ask for Jane” does is how the Jane network had a lot of in-fighting and disagreements among its members. One major point of contention was in how to decide who deserved to get free abortions. Virginia wants it to be a random selection from low-income women, while other Jane network members think the decision should be done on a case-by-case basis of who is the most in need.
The issues of race and socioeconomic class are also authentically discussed in “Call Jane.” Gwen, who is the only woman of color in the group, has to constantly remind the other Jane network members to think outside their privileged bubbles to have more empathy for people of different races and lower incomes who have worse abortion hardships than the average middle-class white woman. During a heated argument (in one of the movie’s best scenes), Gwen points out that African American women in the Chicago area are less likely to be able to afford a safe abortion and are more likely to die from botched abortions. Gwen calls it a form of “black genocide,” which Virginia scoffs at as a “batshit” concept.
As for Joy, she becomes friendly with Gwen, but it’s mostly a superficial relationship that doesn’t extend to Joy showing an interest in having Gwen in her life for the long haul. The movie has some racial stereotyping, by having Gwen show Joy how to smoke marijuana. It’s as if the movie is saying that out all the left-wing, progressive types that Joy is now hanging out with in the Jane network, the only black person in the group is the only person who needs to be singled out as a habitual pot smoker.
Joy’s main conflicts are with abrasive Dean, because she thinks he’s toxic to the group, and he doesn’t offer the compassionate care that she thinks the abortion patients deserve. In real life, the Jane network never had anyone die from the abortion services that the Jane network provided. It was important for the Jane network to also have a reputation for offering meaningful counseling to abortion patients, which is something most underground abortion groups didn’t do at the time. Joy eventually finds a way to deal with Dean, but the movie doesn’t do a good-enough job in convincing viewers that neophyte Joy comes up with this solution, and that other more-experienced people in the Jane network (even whip-smart leader Virginia) couldn’t think of it earlier.
If viewers are wondering if any of the characters in “Call Jane,” are based on real people, there are similarities to some of the real-life people in the Jane network. Joy is probably based in part on Judith Arcana (also known as Judy Pildes), a prominent Jane network member married to an attorney. Virginia is no doubt based on Heather Booth, who is credited with founding the Jane network. Gwen is most likely based on Marie Leaner, the most prominent African American member of the Jane network.
If people want to learn more about the Jane network by watching a movie, the best one is the 2022 HBO documentary “The Janes,” directed by Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes. (Arcana, Booth and Leaner are all interviewed in “The Janes” documentary.) Not as comprehensive as “The Janes” but worth seeking out is the 1995 documentary “Jane: An Abortion Service” (directed by Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy), which had a limited release in theaters and was originally televised on PBS.
All of the cast members in “Call Jane” are very good in their roles, with Weaver being an obvious standout because of her acting talent and because Virginia has the strongest personality. “Call Jane” would have benefited from telling viewers a little bit more about the lives of Virginia and Gwen, who are the two Jane network characters other than Joy who get the most screen time and dialogue. In many ways, Virginia and Gwen are much more interesting than Joy, who comes across as a little bland, although Banks does an admirable job with the way the character was written. The biggest failing in “Call Jane” is not showing enough diversity in the abortion patients who get some kind of focus in the movie, when this diversity of abortion patients existed in real life for the Jane network.
Nagy’s direction of “Call Jane” is solid but occasionally disjointed. For example, the movie veers off into a very clumsily depicted and rushed plot development about Joy becoming the target of a police investigation, led by an undercover cop named Detective Chilmark (played by John Magaro), in a very short section of the movie. “Call Jane” should have spent more time on this plot development to bring more tension to the story. Before this plot development, the most tension that Joy gets from the Jane network is arguing with Dean.
“Call Jane” doesn’t have enough of anything that can be considered special or extraordinary filmmaking. And it’s not a movie that is going to change people’s minds about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. However, for viewers looking for a dramatic version of female empowerment taking place in the early years of the American feminist movement, “Call Jane” is a worthy option.
Roadside Attractions released “Call Jane” in U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 6, 2022. “Call Jane” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 13, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “The Good House” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A real-estate agent, who is an alcoholic with big financial problems, tries to salvage her business around the same time that she rekindles a romance with a former high-school classmate who is almost her complete opposite.
Culture Audience: “The Good House” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sigourney Weaver and movies about middle-aged people trying to improve their lives but sometimes stumble in the process.
“The Good House” is neither terrible nor outstanding but might be appealing to viewers who are interested in seeing emotionally authentic movies about middle-aged people dealing with personal problems. Sigourney Weaver’s feisty performance as an alcoholic real-estate agent is the main reason to watch this uneven dramedy. The movie’s storyline about seeking a redemptive comeback is handled better than the movie’s storyline about finding love.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky directed “The Good House” and co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Thomas Bezucha. “The Good House” is based on Ann Leary’s 2013 book of the same name. After having its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, “The Good House” screened at the 2022 Provincetown International Film Festival in Massachusetts and the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
“The Good House” is of those movies where the protagonist not only does voiceover narration but also looks at the camera to talk directly to viewers. If you have tolerance for this type of presentation in a movie that plays it safe overall with a talented group of cast members, then “The Good House” is worth watching. The dialogue is often sharp and witty, even though some of the plot developments are stale and predictable.
The protagonist of “The Good House” is outspoken and sassy Hildy Good (played by Weaver), who has lived in the fictional town of Wendover, Massachusetts, her entire life. As Hildy says proudly in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie: “My family has lived in Wendover for almost 300 years.” (“The Good House” was actually filmed in Nova Scotia, Canada.)
Hildy, who is divorced with two adult daughters, comes from a working-class background (her father was a butcher), but she became a successful real-estate agent. She is currently an independent realtor with her own small business called Good Realty, where she has one employee: a ditzy assistant named Kendall, who is taking a gap year before she goes to college. Hildy lives with two beloved female dogs: a Papillon and a Border Collie, which are her constant companions.
Most of Hildy’s clients are wealthy residents of Massachusetts’ North Shore. During a showing of a house to married potential buyers Lisa Sanderson (played by Holly Chou) and Rob Sanderson (played by Anthony Estrella), Hildy comments, “We will find you the right house. Buying a house that is out of reach is a recipe for misery.”
Hildy then turns to the camera and says, “I should know. I bought a house I could almost afford. And if everything had gone according to plan, I’d be fine.” Hildy also describes herself as a self-made woman who “worked her way through UMass [the University of Massachusetts], and I’m the top broker on the North Shore. Or at least I was until …”
Lately, Hildy has been dealing with some major setbacks that have negatively affected her business. For starters, she’s an alcoholic who is in deep denial about needing treatment for this disease. Secondly, she’s getting stiff competition from realtor Wendy Heatherton (played by Kathryn Erbe), who used to work for Hildy, “before raiding my Rolodex and stealing all of my clients,” according to Hildy. Third, Hildy has increasing debts, due to not being to make as much money as she used to make, in addition to helping out her adult daughters financially and paying alimony to her ex-husband.
Hildy’s elder daughter Tess (played by Rebecca Henderson) lives In Beverly, Massachusetts, with her husband Michael (played by Sebastien Labelle) and their toddler daughter Lottie. Hildy’s younger daughter Emily (played by Molly Brown) is a bachelorette and an artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has a roommate, but Emily gets help from Hildy to pay the rent and other bills. Hildy is hiding her money problems and thinks this is what can put her back on the right financial track: “I need a good year.”
Hildy believes that she’s found some of this financial windfall in a potential sale of a waterfront property owned by Frank Getchell (played by Kevin Kline), who has had the property in his family for years, but he doesn’t want to sell it. He owns a successful maintenance company called Frank Getchell Contracting. Frank, who is a never-married bachelor with no children, has more than enough money to lead a flashy lifestyle, but he lives modestly and is somewhat of a misfit loner in the community.
When Hildy tells Frank that a lawyer from Boston is interested in buying Frank’s waterfront property, Frank rejects the idea of selling it. Hildy tries to get Frank to change his mind by saying: “You’re a businessman, Frank. Don’t you want to make money?” Frank replies, “Not as much as you do. The butcher’s daughter has gone fancy pants.”
Frank and Hildy have a past together: Frank was Hildy’s first love, and they had a short-lived romance during the summer before she went away to college. The relationship didn’t last because their lives went in two different directions: Frank joined the U.S. Army, while Hildy went to the University of Massachusetts. Hildy ended up marrying an affluent college classmate named Scott Good (the father of Tess and Emily), “who introduced me to high thread-count linens and fine wine. I do miss sailing,” Hildy says.
After 20 years of marriage, Scott left Hildy for another man, which is why they got divorced. Hildy is still bitter about this rejection, but it’s later revealed that her divorce isn’t the real reason why she became an alcoholic. Scott (played by David Rasche) is on cordial terms with Hildy, and they sometimes socialize with each other at mutual friends’ events.
Unfortunately, the trailer for “The Good House” already reveals about 70% of the movie’s plot, including Frank and Hildy rekindling their romance. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is a soap opera-type subplot involving two married couples who know Hildy, who finds out a scandalous secret that could affect these couples’ marriages. (The secret is the most obvious one possible.)
The first couple at the center of a potential scandal are Rebecca McAllister (played by Morena Baccarin) and Brian McCallister (played by Kelly AuCoin), who is a workaholic businessman. The other spouses are psychiatrist Peter Newbold (played by Rob Delaney) and Elise Newbold (played by Laurie Hanley), who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hildy has known Peter since he was a child. Hildy and her close friend Mamie Lang (played by Beverly D’Angelo) used to babysit Peter when Peter was about 8 years old.
Rebecca is a homemaker who is friendly but has some emotional issues. In an early scene in the movie, when Hildy is showing the Sandersons a house near Rebecca’s home, Hildy is somewhat horrified to see Rebecca gardening in the front yard while wearing a white nightgown and construction shoes. Hildy discreetly says to Hildy, “It’s chilly outside, dear. Do me a favor. Put on a sweater and a hat and some leggings.” Rebecca laughs and replies, “Yes. Sometimes, I get carried away, and I don’t think things through.”
Rebecca’s husband Brian is away from home a lot because of work. And so, a lonely Rebecca befriends Hildy. They end up confiding in each other about a lot of things about their personal lives. Hildy also becomes acquainted with a married couple named Cassie Dwight (played by Georgia Lyman) and Patch Dwight (played by Jimmy LeBlanc), whose 5-year-old son Jake (played by Silas Pereira-Olson) is living with autism.
Even though Hildy lives alone, she has a fairly active social life, which usually includes going to dinner parties. At one of these parties, Hildy divulges that she’s the descendant of Sarah Good, one of the first accused witches of Salem, Massachusetts. And then, Hildy does a psychic reading at the party while the movie’s soundtrack plays Donavan’s “Season of the Witch.”
“The Good House” has scenes that sometimes awkwardly balance the comedy and the drama. This clumsiness is demonstrated the most in how the movie presents Hildy’s alcoholism, which is sometimes reduced to soundbites where she talks to the camera about it with glib jokes. The movie then uses cheap gimmicks such as hallucinations or Hildy stopping in the middle of a conversation to tell “The Good House” viewers what she’s really thinking by saying it out loud.
In one such scene, Hildy is drinking alcohol when she’s alone in her house. She quips, “I never drank alone—before rehab. Scott always said I should stop after my third drink.” Hildy then hallucinates her ex-husband Scott appearing before her to add, “That’s when you start to get out of control.” Hildy says in response, “What are you talking about? That’s when I start to feel in control.”
The trailer for “The Good House” already revealed that Hildy’s loved ones stage an intervention, in an attempt to get her to go to rehab. It’s just another scene where Hildy comes up with one-liners to continue being in denial about how serious her alcoholism is. It’s hinted at but never told in detail that Hildy’s alcoholism has alienated many of her former clients and has given Hildy a reputation for being erratic. Hildy eventually opens up to someone about some painful things from her childhood, but that’s as far as the movie goes in exploring Hildy’s psychology.
Mostly, Hildy is presented as someone who is trying to fool people into thinking that she has her whole life together when her life is actually falling apart. She doesn’t fool Frank though. It’s one of the reasons why their relationship is easy to root for, because he sees her for who she really is and loves her despite her flaws. It’s a case of “opposites attract” because Hildy likes to put on airs to impress people, while Frank is completely down-to-earth.
One of the shortcomings of “The Good House” is that instead of focusing more on the relationship between Hildy and Frank, the movie tends to get distracted by the messy and melodramatic subplot involving Rebecca, Brian, Peter and Elise. Throughout the movie, Hildy has some drunken antics, with a few of these shenanigans having consequences that might serve as a wake-up call for Hildy to get professional help for her problems.
Weaver doesn’t disappoint in giving a very watchable performance of this emotionally damaged character. The supporting cast members are also up to the task in playing their roles. However, Hildy’s often-prickly personality is written in the movie as overshadowing all the other characters. Sometimes this character dominance is a benefit to “The Good House,” and sometimes it’s a detriment. “The Good House” doesn’t always succeed in having a consistent tone, but the story has enough realistic portrayals of adult relationships to make it an appealing story to viewers who are inclined to watch these types of movies.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “The Good House” in select U.S. cinemas on September 30, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 18, 2022. “The Good House” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 22, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and on the fictional planet of Pandora, the sci-fi action film “Avatar: The Way of Water” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) portraying humans and non-humans.
Culture Clash: Jake Sully and Neytiri, the heroes of 2009’s “Avatar,” are now the leaders of the Omatikaya clan on Pandora, but Jake becomes the target of revenge for being a traitor to Earth, so he and his family escape to live with another clan on Pandora, with an old enemy in pursuit.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Avatar” fans, “Avatar: The Way of Water” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a top-notch sci-fi film.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” has set the bar even higher for sci-fi epics. The movie’s technical achievements and story surpass the first “Avatar” film. Expect to be immersed in a visually stunning world that has a lot to say about protection of families and the environment. At 192 minutes, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a more than worth the time of anyone who wants to be entertained for a little more than three hours by a magnificent achievement in sci-fi cinema.
Directed by James Cameron, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a movie that is fully appreciated if viewers have seen or know about what happened in 2009’s Oscar-winning blockbuster “Avatar,” which was also directed by Cameron. Mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t the first “Avatar” movie, which took place in the year 2154: The movie’s main hero, Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington), a wheelchair-using U.S. Marine, was assigned to be a bodyguard for Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver), the leader of the Avatar Program that gives the ability for humans to appear in the form of something else.
Jake defied the government’s plan for military people to disguise themselves as Pandora natives call the Na’vi, in order to deplete the moon planet of Pandora (located in the Alpha Centauri system) for the precious resource unobtanium. Na’vi people are a humanoid species with blue skin, and the average Na’vi adults are about 10 feet tall. At the end of the first “Avatar” movie, Jake left behind his human life on Earth to become a Na’vi.
At the beginning of “Avatar: The Way of Water” (whose screenplay was written by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver), it is about 15 years after the first movie took place. Jake (who has fully inhabited his Na’vi body) has been happily married to Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldaña), the female Na’vi who saved his life in the first “Avatar” movie. Jake and Neytiri fell in love in the first “Avatar” movie. They now live on Pandora, where Jake is the leader of the Omatikaya clan, which lives and thrives in the forest.
Jake and Neytiri are now parents to four children: teenage son Neteyam (played by Jamie Flatters) is the “role model” eldest child; teenage son Lo’ak (played by Britain Dalton) is slightly rebellious and living in the shadow of Neteyam; adopted teenage daughter Kiri (played by Weaver) is haunted by the memories of her biological mother; and pre-teen daughter Tuk (played by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) is friendly and playful. The four Sully kids are very close to a human named Spider (played by Jack Champion), who was orphaned by the war between the Na’vi and humans.
The movie later reveals Spider’s family background and who one of his biological parents is. Spider spends so much time with the Sully kids that he’s almost like part of the family. However, Neytiri is nervous and wary about Spider becoming so close to the kids because she doesn’t completely trust humans, who are called Sky People by the Na’vi. The humans were responsible for nearly destroying Neytiri’s family in the first “Avatar” movie. One of the survivors was Neytiri’s mother Mo’at (played by CCH Pounder), who makes a brief appearance in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
Kiri’s origins are revealed near the beginning of the movie: She was created from the DNA of Dr. Augustine. Mild spoiler alert for those who don’t know what happened in the first “Avatar” movie: Dr. Augustine died in the first “Avatar” movie, but she makes an appearance in flashbacks in “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Throughout the movie, Kiri feels a psychic connection to that is both confusing and comforting to Kiri.
In the first “Avatar” movie, the U.S. government’s Resources Development Administration (RDA) was in charge of raiding Pandora for unobtanium because resources on Earth have diminished. The RDA still exists in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and they consider Jake to be a traitorous enemy because of what happened in the first “Avatar” movie. As described in the “Avatar: The Way of Water” production notes: “In addition to having an armada of weaponized land, air and sea vehicles at their disposal, the RDA has brought with them a secret weapon: an elite team of soldiers resurrected as recombinants (recoms). Recoms are autonomous avatars embedded with the memories of the humans whose DNA was used to create them.”
This group of recom soldiers has been tasked with one primary mission: find and kill Jake. The leader of this mission is Recom Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang), the avatar of the human Colonel Miles Quaritch (also played by Lang), who was head of RDA’s security force and Jake’s biggest adversary in the first “Avatar” movie. During this mission, the recom soldiers appear in the form of Na’vi when they go to Pandora to hunt down Jake.
Through a series of circumstances, the Sully family is are forced to leave their home. They flee to another part of Pandora, where they are taken in as refugees by the green-skinned Metkayina clan. Whereas the forest is the primary domain of the Omatikaya clan, the ocean is the primary domain of the Metkayina clan, which reluctantly lets the Sully family live with them because it’s a Na’vi tradition to help refugees of Pandora.
The leaders of the Metkayina clan are upstanding and fair-minded Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). and his compassionate wife Ronal (played by Kate Winslet), who is pregnant when this story takes place. Ronal and Tonowari tell their teenage children—daughter Tsireya (played by Bailey Bass) and older son Aonung (played by Filip Geljo)—to attempt to teach the Sully kids how to adapt to the clan’s water activities, customs and traditions. Aonung is somewhat hostile to these newcomers, while Tsireya is welcoming.
Tsireya and Lo’ak have an immediate “attraction at first sight” the first time that they meet each other. It leads to some romantic moments but also some tensions, particularly from Aonung, who clashes with and bullies Lo’ak during much of the story. The residents of Pandora have much bigger problems though, when Recom Colonel Miles Quaritch and his marauding team of soldiers invade Pandora in their hunt for Jake.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” has some of the most eye-popping and gorgeous visuals (especially the underwater scenes) that movie audiences will ever see in a sci-fi movie. In addition to the movie’s visual effects, “Avatar: The Way of Water’s” enchanting cinematography and production design are particularly noteworthy. “Avatar: The Way of Water” also has emotionally impactful stories about the connections that humans and humanoids can develop with other animals. And just like in the first “Avatar” movie, “Avatar: The Way of Water” has a very pro-environment message that isn’t preachy but is presented in a way that serves as a warning of what could happen when a planet’s inhabitants don’t take care of their planet.
The majority of the cast members in “Avatar: The Way of Water” do not appear in human form, due to visual effects, so their acting is on par with similar big-budget movies that use visual effects to alter the appearance of the cast members. However, Weaver (as Kiri) and Dalton have some standout moments as children who feel like misfits in their family and who feel like they have something to prove about their worth in their family. Champion’s portrayal of Spider is also admirable, because Spider goes through his own issues dealing with self-esteem, identity and family loyalty.
Other characters in “Avatar: The Way of Water” include General Ardmore (played by Edie Falco), a ruthless official from RDA; Captain Mick Scoresby (played by Brendan Cowell) and Dr. Ian Garvin (played by Jemaine Clement), who are recruited by RDA to help track down Jake and find more unobtanium; and scientists Dr. Norm Spellman (played by Joel David Moore) and Dr. Max Patel (played by Dileep Rao), who were allies to Jake in the first “Avatar” movie.
The “Avatar” universe is best experienced from the beginning to fully understand the nuances and developments of “Avatar: The Way of Water” and other “Avatar” sequels. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a movie that has Oscar-worthy technical prowess, but the dialogue is a little on the simplistic and generic side. What the movie lacks in dazzling dialogue it more than makes up for in delivering a poignant, thrilling and entertaining story with a big heart that viewers will want to revisit.
20th Century Studios will release “Avatar: The Way of Water” in U.S. cinemas on December 16, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Washington, D.C., during the years 1995 and 1996, the dramatic film “My Salinger Year” features a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: A grad school dropout, who wants to become a professional writer, gets a job as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent and breaks the agency’s cardinal rule of how to answer Salinger’s fan mail.
Culture Audience: “My Salinger Year” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Sigourney Weaver and people interested in movies about the New York literary world in the 1990s, but the movie lacks credibility in many crucial areas and portrays its main female characters as stereotypes.
The dramatic film “My Salinger Year” (written and directed by Philippe Falardeau) is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir of the same name, but the movie comes across as a fantasy of what women experience in the book publishing world. The female protagonist is an aspiring writer, but she does almost no work on her writing and instead spends most of the story obsessing over famed reclusive author J.D. Salinger and his fan mail, after she becomes an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent. The irony of her spending so much time reading Salinger’s fan mail is that she hasn’t read any of Salinger’s work, but she’s foolishly arrogant enough to think she can judge how his fans should respond to his work.
“My Salinger Year,” which takes place from 1995 to 1996, is one of those “bubble” biopics where the protagonist Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley) lives in a privileged bubble mentality. Joanna, who is in her early 20s when this story takes place, expects to get “discovered” as a writer without actually writing anything substantial. She thinks the rules don’t really apply to her in her office job. And she never acknowledges that people who are less privileged than she is have it much harder to get the opportunities that are handed to her because she’s young and has a certain level of physical attractiveness. Her idea of “suffering” is living in a Brooklyn apartment that doesn’t have a kitchen sink.
Joanna is intended to be a stereotypical wide-eyed, charming ingenue in this movie. But her actions show that she’s actually quite self-centered and dishonest—not all the time, but enough for viewers to see that beneath the pretty surface is someone who’s kind of a spoiled brat. Joanna is a dreamer who doesn’t like being reminded that people have bigger problems than she does. As such, the movie tries too hard to be whimsical by showing many fantasy sequences of Salinger’s fans speaking to the camera, as if they’re also speaking to Joanna.
Joanna doesn’t come from a rich family, but she aspires to be accepted into the sophisticated and educated social circles of people in Manhattan who have servants and read The New Yorker, her favorite magazine. She isn’t a snob, per se, because a snob’s sense of superiority comes from thinking about other people as being “lower-class,” whereas Joanna doesn’t really think about other people at all, except for what other people can do for her.
In the beginning of the movie, Joanna says in a voiceover: “I grew up in a quiet, suburban town just north of New York. On special occasions, my dad would take me into the city and we would get dessert at the Waldorf or the Plaza. I loved watching the people around us. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”
The operative phrase here, which explains Joanna’s mindset and personality, is “I want.” She wants all these glamorous fantasies for herself, but actually doesn’t want to put in a lot of the hard work to achieve those dreams. You don’t learn five languages just by imagining yourself doing it. And that’s the same attitude that she has about her career goal of becoming a famous and respected writer. Her only experience at this point is having a few pieces published in The Paris Review.
As Joanna says in a voiceover in the beginning of the movie, she was a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley when she decided to visit her childhood best friend Jenny (played by Seána Kerslake) in New York City for a few days. Joanna’s original plan was to return to Berkeley, where her boyfriend Karl Ansari (played by Hamza Haq) was waiting for her. Instead, Joanna explains, “something shifted.”
As far as Joanna is concerned, she can’t be a real writer without living in New York. And so, she never went back to Berkeley, she dropped out of grad school, and decided to move permanently to New York. And she never bothered to tell Karl that she was breaking up with him and why. So selfish. Karl knew that Joanna wanted to stay in New York, but he was misled into thinking that they would have a long-distance relationship. He eventually figured out that Joanna wanted to end the relationship when she stopped being in contact with him.
Joanna is never seen in Berkeley, as if she and the movie want to erase that part of her life. Instead, Joanna slides right into an easy living arrangement in New York City, where she becomes the roommate of Jenny and Jenny’s boyfriend Brett in the fall of 1995. Joanna isn’t a freeloader because she looks for a job by signing up with an employment agency. But, as can only happen in a movie with a privileged protagonist like this one, she gets a job right away by lying her way into it.
Joanna experiences no real struggles, no series of rejections that young, inexperienced writers often have to face when they’re just starting out in the workforce. (And experienced writers get rejected too.) No, that’s not to supposed to happen to Joanna, because the “My Salinger Year” filmmakers insult viewers’ intelligence by making it look like all you have to do is be a young, attractive female of a certain race to have people going out of their way to help you.
Joanna quickly gets an administrative assistant job at the fictional A&F Literary Management by lying that she knows how to type 60 words per minute. In reality, Joanna doesn’t know how to type. And she’s never given a typing test before she’s hired.
Joanna’s lack of typing skills is an indication that Joanna was too lazy to learn how to type during all of her years in college when she would’ve greatly benefited from having typing skills. Viewers have to assume that Joanna got other people to type her college assignments for her. More privilege on display.
Even when Joanna’s prickly and demanding boss Margaret (played by Sigourney Weaver) finds out later in the story that Joanna can’t type (due to all the mistakes that Joanna makes when she tries to type), Joanna doesn’t get fired. Why? Because Joanna told another big lie in the interview: When Margaret says she doesn’t like to have assistants who are aspiring writers, Joanna tells Margaret that she’s not an aspiring writer. Margaret’s dislike of having aspiring writers work for her is because she thinks wannabe writers give more priority to working on their own material instead of doing the work they were hired to do for the agency.
Margaret’s most famous client is reclusive author J.D. Salinger, whose main claim to fame is his influential 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” a tale of a rebellious teenager named Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s last published work was the novella “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which The New Yorker published in 1965. Joanna knows how famous Salinger is, but she’s never read any of his work. It’s a secret that Joanna only admits to a few trusted people in her life because she doesn’t want to look ignorant when it comes to literature.
In real life, Rakoff worked for Phyllis Westberg at the literary agency Harold Ober Associates, the inspiration behind the fictional Margaret character and A&F Literary Management in this movie. Westberg aslo represented Salinger in real life, and she was eventually promoted to chief of Harold Ober Associates in 1998. Because “My Salinger Year” takes place only in 1995 and 1996, this promotion is not depicted in the movie.
During the job interview, Margaret (who refers to Salinger as “Jerry”) tells Joanna that Jerry isn’t a problem but his people (in other words, his other gatekeepers and his obsessive fans) are a problem. Margaret warns Joanna: “You must never, ever give out his address … Remember, there’s no shortage of college graduates who want this job. Be prepared to work long hours.” Joanna acts like an eager beaver who will do whatever Margaret wants, so Joanna gets hired on the spot and is told her first day as an A&F employee will be on January 8, 1996.
Also in the room during the interview is a high-ranking A&F executive named Daniel (played by Colm Feore), who’s about the same age as Margaret. He seems to have enough of a comfort level with Margaret where he can call her a “tyrant” while she’s in the room. When Joanna is hired and gushes that she’s “honored and thrilled,” Daniel says cynically, “No need to be honored. Thrilled, maybe.” Joanna is then seen looking starry-eyed and hopeful as she walks through the hallways of A&F Literary Management to look at the photo-portrait wall hangings of famous authors who were the company’s past and present clients, such as Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.
During her first day on the job, Joanna meets three other employees who have lower rankings than Margaret and Daniel. Hugh (played by Brían F. O’Byrne), who takes care of legal matters such as contracts and correspondence, is the employee whom Joanna interacts with the most, other than Margaret. Hugh tells Joanna that he used to have her job when he started out at the company. On her first day on the job, Joanna also meets literary agents Max (played by Yanic Truesdale) and Lisa (played by Xiao Sun), who seem to be in this movie as token people of color, since their roles are not substantial to the story.
Hugh tells Joanna on her first day on the job, as he hands her a stack of Salinger’s fan mail, that Salinger does not want to receive any mail from fans and other people requesting things from him. Instead, Hugh tells Joanna that the company’s policy is that people who write to Salinger are sent a standard form letter explaining that Salinger does not accept any mail. The form letters that are sent out must be identical. Sending a personal reply is strictly forbidden. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that Joanna is going to break that rule.
Hugh also explains to Joanna that all mail addressed to Salinger has to be opened and read as a safety precaution. Hugh makes a reference to Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon who had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him when Chapman was arrested in December 1980 right after the murder. John Hinkley Jr., who tried to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in March 1981, was also obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Hugh says not all of Salinger’s fan mail comes from unknown people of questionable mental stability, because some famous and highly respected people sometimes try to contact Salinger by mail too. If the mail looks like it should be brought to a superior’s attention at the company, whoever reads the mail should do that. Otherwise, the mail has to be shredded. Needless to say, Joanna breaks that rule too, because she steals a lot of the fan mail to take home and read.
After moving to New York, Joanna doesn’t waste time in finding a new boyfriend. His name is Don (played by Douglas Booth), and he’s about five or six years older than Joanna. They met while he was working at a socialist bookstore. A love of reading and being aspiring writers are two of the few things that Joanna and Don have in common.
Don sees himself as a die-hard socialist, and he thinks a magazine like The New Yorker is a bourgeois joke that glorifies greed and capitalism. Considering that The New Yorker is Joanna’s favorite magazine and she has aspirations to lead a high-society, jet-set lifestyle, viewers can easily see how incompatible Joanna and Don are. Later on in the story, there are issues of control, respect and emotional manipulation that affect their relationship.
When Jenny drops hints to Joanna that Joanna has overstayed her welcome at Jenny’s apartment, Joanna decides to move in with Don after not knowing him for very long. Don and Joanna go apartment hunting together, and Don impulsively decides that they should live in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn that’s within their price range, even though they can barely afford the rent on their meager salaries. However, Don doesn’t want his name on the lease because he says he has bad credit (red flag warning signs right there), so Joanna is the one whose name is on the lease. In other words, she’ll be stuck paying the rent if the relationship doesn’t work out.
It isn’t until after she signs the lease that Joanna notices that the apartment doesn’t have a kitchen sink, and she’s not happy about it. Don tells her that it’s no big deal because they can wash dishes in the bathtub. Joanna is determined to convince herself that somehow this is all part of her fantasy of being an aspiring writer in New York. But viewers can easily see where this is going to go, considering that Joanna is the type of person who wants to hang out at the Waldorf Astoria so she can eat overpriced desserts. (And it’s exactly what she does later in the movie.)
While Don actually does a lot of writing (he’s working on his first novel), Joanna spends her days doing secretary work for Margaret and spends her nights reading Salinger’s fan mail. Joanna shows no passion for writing her own work at all. She doesn’t even have writer’s block as an excuse. And it isn’t until very late in the story, when she has an epiphany about her aimless life, that she finally gets around to reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”
There are some very mid-1990s references in the movie, such as Margaret’s skepticism about using the Internet. Margaret is so “old school” that she doesn’t even want her office to have computers, until she finally relents and gets one computer that she looks at it as if it’s an invention from outer space. And because digital recorders didn’t exist back then, Joanna has to use a cassette dictaphone to transcribe Margaret’s recordings.
The Margaret character might be compared to the tyrannical Miranda Priestly character (played by Meryl Streep), the fashion magazine boss in the much more entertaining 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” which was also based on a memoir written by a former administrative assistant in the New York City publishing industry. Just like Miranda has a brusque attitude toward her assistants, so too does Margaret. However, Margaret has more heart and is not as over-the-top as Miranda with her domineering ways.
Unlike Miranda, Margaret doesn’t take pleasure in demeaning her underlings. In fact, when Margaret finds out that Joanna lied about knowing how to type, and Joanna commits other betrayals of trust, Margaret doesn’t fire her. (Miranda Priestly would never show that type of mercy.) Weaver’s nuanced portrayal of Margaret is as a boss who actually wants to mentor someone, as long as that person is an aspiring literary agent, not an aspiring writer.
As a character, Margaret is a lot more believable than Joanna, although they are both written as stereotypes of women in the workplace: the battle-axe boss and the inexperienced ingenue. Viewers of “My Salinger Year” might find Joanna tolerable because of Qualley’s sympathetic portrayal of this character. Joanna looks like an innocent beauty, and that’s why people easily forgive her, even though you know that people wouldn’t be so forgiving if she had a different physical appearance. Time and time again, Joanna is given many chances after she messes up or is caught in a big lie.
Even when Joanna gets her head out of her privileged bubble to acknowledge that other people have more emotional pain than she does, there’s an air of “ulterior motive” about it. When Margaret experiences a tragedy and takes time off from work, Joanna shows up unannounced at Margaret’s apartment with a bouquet of flowers and Margaret’s favorite soup. It’s a compassionate thing to do, but if we’re being honest, it’s also trying to impress the boss.
And when Joanna decides to accept her ex-boyfriend Karl’s invitation to meet with him while he’s in Washington, D.C., it’s only after Margaret tasks Joanna to spy on Salinger when Salinger goes to Washington to meet with a publisher named Clifford Bradbury (played by Matt Holland), who might publish Salinger’s next work. In other words, Joanna is only in Washington because her job is paying for the trip, not because she’s making any personal sacrifices to see Karl again. And she only shows remorse for how she treated Karl after she starts having problems with Don.
Yes, there’s a scene in the movie where Joanna spies on J.D. Salinger. The movie goes to great lengths to show Salinger (played by Tim Post) as a mysterious figure when Joanna sees him in person. His face is obscured or he’s shown only from the back. Salinger also talks to Joanna briefly over the phone, and she is predictably star-struck. Joanna is flattered and somewhat giggly when Margaret tells her that Salinger likes Joanna.
There’s a creepy subtext to all of that if viewers of this movie know that a grandfather-age Salinger had real-life predatory ways with women in their late teens and early 20s, according to author Joyce Maynard, who detailed her youthful experiences with Salinger in her 1998 memoir “At Home in the World.” Since that book was published a few years after the story takes place in “My Salinger Year,” it’s understandable that the movie doesn’t mention that Salinger wasn’t so reclusive after all when it came to trying to seduce his young female fans.
Speaking of older men who prey on younger, less-experienced women, “My Salinger Year” ignores the reality that someone like Joanna would definitely have older men in the publishing industry trying to abuse their power by pressuring her to go on dates with them or other forms of sexual harassment. The movie also doesn’t acknowledge that there’s rampant sexism in the media/book publishing industry. The “My Salinger Year” movie is very much a fantasy version of what a woman like Joanna would experience in real life.
Even though in the beginning of the movie, Joanna shares fond childhood memories of time that she spent with her father while they visited New York City, “My Salinger Year” oddly never mentions Joanna’s family again. Viewers don’t know if her parents are still alive, and if they are still alive, what her parents think about Joanna dropping out of grad school to pursue a writing career in New York City. It’s an example of how the movie treats Joanna as an incomplete sketch in its relentless push of the ingenue narrative for her.
“My Salinger Year” has brief portrayals of a few other authors in addition to Salinger. Judy Blume (played by Gillian Doria) has a contentious meeting with Margaret at the A&F offices. Joanna is in awe of Judy because she read Judy Blume books when she was a child, so Joanna thinks she’s some kind of Judy Blume expert. And like a know-it-all, Joanna blurts out her opinions to Margaret on how Margaret mishandled the meeting with Judy, even though Joanna wasn’t even in the meeting.
In an earlier part of the movie, Joanna meets author Rachel Cusk (played Hayley Kezber), while Rachel is having lunch at a restaurant with Margaret, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Helen (played by Lise Roy) and Max. Joanna is there because Daniel happened to see Joanna walking outside and invited her into the restaurant to join them. When Margaret sees that Joanna and Rachel have a friendly rapport with each other, Margaret shows her spiteful side by coldly dismissing Joanna from the luncheon and telling her to go back to the office and work.
One of the most annoying aspects of “My Salinger Year” is how it portrays Salinger’s fans who write to him as sad, lonely people who act as if their lives will be ruined if Salinger doesn’t reply to their mail. These fans are all fictional characters in the movie, but that doesn’t make this movie’s depiction of them any less insulting to Salinger’s fan base. Joanna reads the fan letters in a mostly “holier than thou” way, but she admits that some of the letters affect her emotionally because she can sometimes relate to the fans who are aspiring writers.
But since the movie makes the fans who get screen time look like they might be mentally unhinged, sure enough, one of these fans (a teenage girl, played by Romane Denis) ends up showing stalker-like behavior when Joanna makes the mistake of writing back condescending, unsolicited advice about being a writer. The teenage fan unexpectedly shows up at the A&F offices to angrily confront Joanna. It’s one of the few times that Joanna gets a much-needed reality check about how her cavalier actions can have serious consequences.
The Salinger fan who gets the most screen time is a man in his late teens or early 20s named Fernell Breault (played by Théodore Pellerin), who’s from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joanna becomes so fixated on his letters, that the movie’s fantasy sequences of Fernell evolve from him talking to the camera while he’s in North Carolina to actually appearing in front of Joanna and talking to her while she’s on a train, as he appears to her in a hallucination. So pretentious.
Far from being a female empowerment story, “My Salinger Year” shows that Joanna willingly mutes her own voice as a writer for almost the entire movie so that she can be second-fiddle to a famous male writer. This movie isn’t about Joanna being a writer. It’s about her answering J.D. Salinger’s fan mail.
Joanna moved to New York City to become a writer, but while she’s living in New York, not once does the movie give an indication about what type of writing Joanna is capable of doing in her free time, except toward the end of the movie when she mentions some new poetry that she’s written. However, the poetry isn’t shown or spoken at all in the movie. Nor is there any indication that she’s good enough to be a professional writer. (Answering fan mail doesn’t count.)
Predictably, Joanna expects to be given a shortcut to her work getting published, but there isn’t a scene of her actually working at writing. It’s all such a wasted opportunity for this movie to show a young aspiring writer developing her craft. Instead, she’s portrayed as a fickle and flighty individual who would much rather wallow in fantasies and read someone else’s fan mail. And the title of this movie/Rakoff’s memoir says it all: Joanna’s own story isn’t told without using the name of a famous male author.
IFC Films released “My Salinger Year” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021. The movie’s title in the U.K. and Ireland is “My New York Year.”