I follow the Oscars. Don’t ask me why, I know it’s just Hollywood BS and studio politics, but I follow them. Most of the movies that get nominated, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I recognize I’m never gonna see. Mainly because the things that get nominated are often the most depressing pieces of cinema ever made. I’m prone to depression on my own, I don’t need any help in that department.
But sometimes I find out about movies because of the Oscar race that end up being really good. I never would have discovered Gran Torino without the Oscars, just as an example. And a lot of really great movies that I would never even hear of when they were out in theaters get discovered at the Oscars and I see them solely because of this awards race.
Well, I saw Blue Valentine because of all the Oscar buzz around it. And it fits the mold as one that I would have never heard of if not for following those awards: small, independent film that got little to no media attention until in was nominated. (Yes, it had already won several awards at Sundance but most of the Sundance movies don’t really get noticed till they’re then doubly validated with Oscar noms so you often don’t hear about them till then. Or at least I don’t.)
I was excited about this movie for other reasons, too: one of the two main stars is Ryan Gosling who is one of the most talented actors I’ve encountered. (Go watch Lars and the Real Girl and disagree me, I dare you.) The other main star is Michelle Williams who has done some pretty impressive stuff of her own. The reviews all talked about the way the movie was shot (they made the two actors live together while shooting, playing house in order to develop the dynamics of the characters organically) and how amazingly intimate the scenes appeared because of the cinematography. All in all it sounded pretty amazing.
Well, it was. It was also, in grand theme of the Oscars, one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen in my life. And while I have to say that I thought the acting was amazing, the cinematography lived up the hype, the direction was impressive and the whole story was terribly real I can’t say that I liked it.
There’re a few reasons for this, number one of which is the plot. The way that they did it was unique and fascinating- playing out both the rise and decline of a relationship simultaneously. The story is one of two kids- both from less than healthy families, both a bit naive in their passions, both of whom suffer all the insanities of love and end up with an unexpected pregnancy and a shot-gun wedding tying them together. Simultaneously we see the same two characters suffering from all the problems of a dysfunctional marriage- unequal parenting, the strains of work and child rearing sucking the life out of sexual intimacy, the wear of old habits causing small problems over the years and inserting upsets and irks in daily interactions.
The actors are phenomenal, as I said. Ryan Gosling is so convincing as Dean- an uneducated artistic soul who finds that being a dad and husband is really all he wants to do but falls prey to alcoholism and stagnancy in the process. His speech patterns are so illustrative of the character that seeing through the mannerisms to the actor doing them is literally impossible. And Michelle Williams is equally brilliant as Cindy- the hard-working mom who finds herself resentful of being the only disciplinarian to their daughter, feels guilty for hating her husband but is unable to ebb the flow and is struggling to keep all those feelings under wraps in order to keep the illusion of the happy family going. Seeing them young and in love right along side them old and embittered is truly artistic. But their interactions seem so real, so intimate that it actually feels like an intrusion of privacy. Particularly the physically intimate scenes- and there’s that expert cinematography- are so intense that I actually felt genuinely uncomfortable watching them. It’s as if you snuck a peak at your parents making love, were instantly traumatized by what you saw, but were too scared of making noise to move less you be discovered.
And the biggest issue is the realism of the story. There is nothing at all unique about this tale- young couple in love ends up taking on responsibilities they aren’t prepared for, forms a family and implodes because they didn’t really have anything other than a kid to base it on. But that simple fact- that it is such a statistically common story- is what makes it so depressing. In my field I see this every single day- I don’t need to be watching movies about it. And seeing two embittered people inadvertently destroy each other and their family is made worse by such brilliant acting and artistic presentation.
All in all, if you’re a movie buff who is fascinated by any of the elements that were done brilliantly- the theatrical envelop pushing done by displaying two story lines simultaneously, the way that actors inhabit the skin of the characters, the cinematography giving you a close up view of a couple’s intimacies or the overall experience of realism in story telling- I would highly recommend it. If you’re prone to getting depressed by watching vicious fighting between married couple (i.e. you witnessed a divorce first or even second hand) then I’d recommend you skip it and go watch Lars and The Real Girl which leaves you feeling pretty much exactly opposite of what this movie does.