Saturday, May 7, 2011

Little Sparrows. (2011) Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen

"For My Mother," reads the post-script to Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen's gentle drama about a mom, her final bout with breast cancer, a distant father aiming to make up for lost time, and their three grown daughters -- still seen by mom as the "little sparrows," which she'll have symbolically and beautifully tattooed on her skin.

Shot in hand-held, dogme-like fashion, with a moody background waltz made from pianos and accordions and acoustic guitar strumming, Little Sparrows feels like a cross between indie cinema and a Lifetime channel event. On Mother's Day it would be a good film for the women of the house to take in while the men do the dishes and clean up from the meal; it is unique for a bonding experience between grown-up daughters and their moms, but one for the guys to skip and either watch the NBA playoffs or go out for a round of golf.

The film tells the simple story of a mom (Susan) whose cancer has returned and spread and she knows she doesn't have much time left. She wishes for a happy family get-together at Christmas, which may be the last Christmas she is able to see, certainly the last Christmas she'll be home for. Her husband James, an actor who has put his work first over the years, is the first to receive the news. As he confronts his own sadness and is told by Susan to keep it together for the sake of their daughters, they begin plans for Christmas, when the three daughters and their grandchildren will be home, and the news that will need to be shared. The film shifts and we then get the stories of each daughter, sometimes speaking directly to the camera but mostly told in reenactment. The film jumps in time between the Christmas party and the separate lives of the women, and it shifts perspective on a few events that bring excellent insight into how all three deal with the situation of their mom and her cancer.

Anna, the middle child is an actor like her dad. She is married to filmmaker Mark but is having an affair. The fact that Mark is a thickheaded, doltish jerk doesn't change the fact that both Anna and her lover Rick know that the whole thing is wrong. What we will learn from Anna is that we might feel that we have power and control over even the craziest of situations in our lives. Sadly, we either don't, or if we do it will still be released from our grasp.

Christine, the youngest of the three, is a closet lesbian and has been her whole life. She is a med student and still living at home. She brings the two most interesting scenes to the film: the first is when she and her lover bump into Anna and Rick downtown. This is obviously awkward for all. Christine doesn't know about Rick, and Anna doesn't know about her little sister's closeted sexuality. The second scene is a quite funny story that Christine relays to her mom in a hospital bed. It has to do with orange juice and a carpeted white library floor and the spilling of a liter of the orange stuff and sneaking out. And like the orange juice, in regard to the cancer, Christine will walk away, not wanting to face it when her sisters meet to tell them about mom. But she will grow in this tale, replacing fear with an inner strength that perhaps even she didn't know she was capable of.

The eldest sister Nina is a widow with two children of her own. She has felt for years that she needs to be the glue that holds everyone together, but when she married an alcoholic and he died, her guilt left her unraveling for years. It has been five years since her husband's death, and Nina keeps her feelings and needs securely locked away. She bumps into Simon, the Best Man from her wedding, in a grocery store. Simon is still alone, still working the same job, same old Simon from years ago. Nina casually mentions it to Susan, and mom has hopes that Nina will find love.

All three of the women will be consoled by their dying mom in a reversal of sorts that makes sense. We often think that a dying person's need is to be consoled as they are taken care of. It might be the other way around. That person's final mission could very well be to take the tears of those close to them, to breathe life to their loved ones even if it comes from their dying breath. There are beautiful scenes in Little Sparrows where Susan has the opportunity to reach out, suggesting that perhaps even in death or in a dying state, the best way to live is giving to others.

The film in places is like a shot of estrogen, one of the reasons I gave for kicking the men out before seeing it. But it does have a holistic feel, where the dying and the living are in a healing state together.

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