Overheard honesty threatens marital bliss

Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tries to drown her sorrows in You Hurt My Feelings. (Photos by Jeong Park)

By Richard Ades

When a couple exchanges wedding vows, they promise to love and cherish each other, among other things. What they generally don’t promise is to be honest with each other.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is a topic writer-director Nicole Holofcener takes up in her entertaining and chuckle-worthy new film, You Hurt My Feelings.

Long-married New Yorkers Beth and Don (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies) love and support each other to a fault—the fault being that they occasionally express that support by telling little white lies.

When Don gives Beth earrings as an anniversary present, she greets them with such forced enthusiasm that it’s obvious she doesn’t like them. And when Beth reciprocates by giving Don a V-neck sweater, his disappointment is equally clear because his first comment is, “Oh, a V-neck.” (As all fans of Louis-Dreyfus’s former series, Seinfeld, know, saying the name of a gift after you open it is a sure sign you didn’t want it.)

All this is no big deal, right? When you’re in a relationship, telling the occasional little white lie can help you avoid hurt feelings or unnecessary friction.

But then Beth catches Don in a lie that doesn’t seem so little: She overhears him admitting to his brother-in-law that, even though he’s told Beth he loves the novel she’s been working on for the past two years, he actually hates it.

Beth is hurt and humiliated, telling sister and fellow eavesdropper Sarah (Michaela Watkins), “I can’t look him in the face ever again.” Sarah tries to soften the blow by admitting she tells actor-husband Mark (Arian Moayed) that he’s more talented than he actually is, but it seems the damage is done.

This unfortunate incident comes to dominate the flick, as well as supplying its title, but it’s actually just one of several examples of the fragile egos and self-doubts that afflict all the major characters.

Aspiring novelist Beth worries she won’t be able to duplicate the success of her previous work, a memoir about growing up with an abusive father. (Not that the memoir was as successful as it might have been if her father hadn’t been just verbally abusive, she muses ruefully.)

Therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) has trouble keeping his clients’ backstories straight.

Don, a therapist who seems to be chronically tired, has trouble keeping his clients straight, and he worries that he’s not helping them get any better. Sarah, an interior designer, has similar fears about pleasing her clients, while Mark suspects he’s really not such a great actor.

Finally, there’s Beth and Don’s 23-year-old son, Eliot (Owen Teague), who’s working on a play that he fears is no good, while dating a woman who he worries will break up with him.

My one quibble with the way all this trauma is acted out is that Louis-Dreyfus falls back on her old Elaine Benes mannerisms at one or two inopportune moments. Otherwise, everyone’s great, including the several supporting actors who play Mark’s eccentric and generally dissatisfied clients.

With its New York setting, sardonic wit and neurotic characters, You Hurt My Feelings may strike some as a lighter, gentler version of early Woody Allen. But Holofcener is really doing her own thing with this portrait of everyday worries and squabbles, giving viewers a breezily pleasant hour and a half in the process.

Rating; 4 stars (out of 5)

You Hurt My Feelings (rated R) opens May 26 in select theaters.

Faith community faces unwelcome intruder: sex

Jem (Eliza Scanlen, second from left) enjoys expressing her faith through liturgical dance. (Photo by Brian Lannin/courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

Years ago, I was visiting a family of fundamentalist Christians in another state when a group of local feminists held a topless protest. A news crew went out to cover the event, and one of the protesters ended up on the evening newscast (from the neck up) explaining what they were protesting about.

Watching the interview on TV that night, the matriarch of my host family clearly was not impressed by what the woman had to say. “You can tell she just wants attention,” she said dismissively.

The comment left me with the immediate thought: “What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everybody want attention?” But I quickly realized, “Oh, it’s a fundamentalist thing.” Apparently seeking attention was considered sinful in that culture—especially, I guessed, if you’re a woman.

The incident came rushing back to me after watching The Starling Girl, writer/director Laurel Parmet’s debut film about coming of age in a fundamentalist community. It revolves around Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old Kentuckian who’s devoted to God and her faith. She especially loves expressing her faith through the liturgical dances she performs at services along with a handful of other girls.

After one such performance, however, her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) undermines her joy by pointing out that she’d immodestly allowed the outline of her bra to show through her dance costume. Later, adding to her daughter’s perceived sins, the mother asks whether Jem dances “for God or for vanity.”

Or, as my long-ago host would have put it, “The girl just wants attention.”

Growing up in a restrictive religious community can be tough, and it becomes even tougher when you’re a teenager whose hormones are awakening urges you’ve been taught to suppress. Jem is critical of a boy who’s been sent away to have the sin beaten out of him after he was caught looking at online porn. But she soon faces challenges of her own.

Her parents want to arrange a courtship and eventual marriage to their pastor’s younger son, Ben (Austin Abrams), an awkward boy who thinks barnyard diarrhea is an appropriate topic for a first date. Jem, though, is more interested in Ben’s older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), a future pastor who’s just returned from mission work in Puerto Rico. She’s so interested, in fact, that she engineers excuses to be around him, ignoring the inconvenient fact that he’s married.

As it turns out, Owen’s marriage is not a happy one, and he’s not averse to giving his young admirer the attention she so desperately wants. The result is a situation for which Jem’s upbringing has left her totally unprepared.

Competently acted, and naturalistically written and directed by Parmet, The Starling Girl offers a searing portrait of Jem’s difficult life. Though the filmmaker tries to leave her with a slim ray of hope, it’s less convincing than the film’s indictment of the intolerance and injustice that flourish when religion tries to overrule human nature.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Starling Girl (rated R) opens May 25 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with wider distribution to follow.

Preserving film history one frame at a time

By Richard Ades

The worst job I ever had was working in a motion picture lab in the late 1970s. Not only did I spent much of my time trapped in a dark room with very pungent chemicals, but I sometimes had the difficult task of copying old, shrunken films that had to be coaxed through our machinery.  

Too bad I couldn’t have seen Film: The Living Record of Our Memory back then. It would have allowed me to feel some pride in the small role I was playing in the massive (and massively difficult) effort to preserve our cinematic history.

Spanish director Ines Toharia Teran’s documentary is about the worldwide quest to save films that otherwise would be lost due to chemical degradation, disasters and other causes.

It’s a quest that began in spite of the early film studios, we’re told, as they thought of movies as commercial products rather than works of art or historical documents that needed to be preserved. In fact, flicks that had already made the theatrical rounds were often destroyed to recover the silver in the film stock, thus helping to pay for future productions.

An additional preservation complication: Early film stock was composed of nitrate, which was dangerously inflammable. If it ever caught on fire, not even water could extinguish the flames.

The documentary tells us that the result of this danger and neglect is that 80 percent of all silent films are likely gone forever, along with half of all the “talkies” ever made.

Film is not a tragedy, however, but an account of the heroes who have devoted themselves to protecting film history. Numerous preservationists and other cinematic experts from around the world talk about the challenges they face—such as trying to reconstruct a formerly “lost” film by splicing together the least-degraded frames from various recovered prints.

Why go to all this trouble? Because otherwise we’ll lose pieces of art that help to define our cultural history. And sometimes we’ll lose pieces of actual history, as in the case of home movies and other nonfiction films that depict scenes from the Holocaust and other world tragedies.

At nearly two wide-ranging hours, Film will be of most interest to those who care about cinema’s past, present and future.

Does it bother you that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 film The Mountain Eagle may never be seen again? Is it important to you that people be able to watch the early works of India’s Satyajit Ray, or the many independent films that depict Africa’s anti-colonial struggles?

Do you want such influential flicks as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment to be available to future cinema lovers?

If so, the documentary will be two hours well spent.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Film: The Living Record of Our Memory opened May 5 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with additional screenings planned May 8-9 in Los Angeles, May 11-14 in St. Louis, May 20 in San Francisco and May 21 in Cleveland. The film will be available through VOD outlets beginning May 16.