Awards season is notorious for bolstering films that feature the most abject suffering possible, but, remarkably, many of this year’s top dramas instead collectively showcase a more complex type of pain: the bittersweet relief of escaping from your dependents. The Oscars have often favored films that emotionally align their audiences with the neglected and abandoned because, well, it’s easy enough to empathize with a victim — it’s harder to understand the conflicted soul of an abandoner. In 2022, however, multiple filmmakers are explicitly considering the torment of those who’ve left their loved ones, even as we witness the crushing consequences their flight has had on those who relied on them for care. This year, The Whale, Corsage and Aftersun all center and sympathize with parents who abandon their children, while The Fabelmans‘Maternal figure flees traditional family life for love. Women Talking and The Banshees of Inisherinon the other hand, hinge on prickly caretakers who question whether to abandon the only homes they’ve ever known.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a 600-pound hermit facing his imminent demise from heart failure. With the few days he has left to live, he reconnects with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) and, as she digs her furious claws into him for leaving her and her mom when she was just a small child, he absorbs her verbal abuse out. of remorse and shame. Charlie left his wife and daughter to be with the only person he ever truly romantically loved, a young man who had been his student and later died by suicide. He tries to make his daughter understand that the only way he could genuinely be happy and whole was to break the lie of his heterosexuality.
While The Whale asks us to consider Charlie’s marginalization as an obese gay man in Idaho and how having these identities in this particular environment led him to alienate himself from his child, Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage posits that being a European woman royal in the 19th century was its own disabling condition. Vicky Krieps stars as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who is increasingly stifled by the expectations of court life and acts out accordingly. Sisi, as she’s called, spends time away from her children as she tours the continent in search of some spark of life she cannot locate in the chilly palace. Sadly, the longer she avoids court, the less her children are interested when she does intermittently return, her prepubescent daughter constantly admonishing her for her nonconformity.
Both The Fabelmans and Aftersun take a more memoiristic approach, with each of their filmmakers re-creating their own childhoods to perhaps better understand the caretakers who hurt but also shaped them. Both films are rife with forgiveness, as Steven Spielberg and Charlotte Wells respectively consider the fragile mental health of their real-life parents, who are depicted onscreen. Where The FabelmansMichelle Williams plays a free-spirited midcentury housewife who breaks up the family to pursue a romance with her husband’s best friend, Aftersun‘s Paul Mescal stars as Calum, a young father who tries to give his daughter a nice summer vacation while he experiences a depressive episode. We’re led to believe Calum may be gay and battling the guilt of not being a primary parent to his daughter, who lives with her mother full time. Like The Whale‘s Charlie, Calum both desperately wants and is absolutely terrified of his daughter seeing who he is behind the mask.
The pressures of caring grind down the women in The Banshees of Inisherin and Women Talking, each of whom is responsible for the emotional health of the men in their lives. In the former, Kerry Condon’s Siobhán is the well-read, sarcastic sister of Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a bland simpleton who falls into a feud with his former best friend, Colm (Brendan Gleeson). As the enmity between them escalates, Siobhán gradually realizes that their isolated Irish island is only going to get smaller as she ages, so she leaves for a library job in wider civilization. In her absence, more tragedy befalls Pádraic until he calcifies into a jaundiced version of himself, further proving Siobhán was indeed the only sensible force in their community.
The ensemble of Women Talking faces even harder questions of what their abandonment could do to their loved ones. After the women of a Mennonite colony discover that some of the men have been drugging and raping them for years, they gather to decide on their next action. If they choose to flee, it is only the women and young children who can leave; they must forsake their teenage sons and husbands. These women must weigh their responsibility to themselves against the responsibility they feel for others, no longer sitting idly by as future generations of women learn to submit to patriarchal dominance.
Desertion can be agony for those left behind, but often it’s a matter of pure survival for the people who must go.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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