Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Passion Fish (1992): Rediscovering yourself after tragedy and poor decisions

Title: Passion Fish
Director: John Sayles
Language: English
Rating: R (for language)

I love the unsentimental approach to the characters in this film and the friendship that develops between them. The movie doesn't so much have a happy ending, as it has a hopeful one. The characters have grown. They're stronger, and they've found strength in their relationship with each other.

The dialogue is thoughtful and well-written, and the visuals are beautiful. There's no fake or stale Hollywood feeling in this movie. The characters are real.

Passion Fish.jpg
Passion Fish Poster. Via Wikipedia.


May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) is a soap opera star whose career ends when she gets paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. She moves back to her old, empty family home in Louisiana, where she intends to waste away gloriously, watching TV, drinking and driving away a succession of nurses. The latest nurse to turn up at the house is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), whose quiet, self-contained demeanor hides the fact that she's struggling with some serious problems of her own. The two women become friends, renewing their lives by making discoveries about who they can be and by helping each other. Each character has her own story arc; they develop together and independently. They aren't portrayed as types, but as real, complex people.

Both McDonnell and Woodard are wonderful in their roles. There's also a strong cast of supporting characters, including: an outdoorsman, Rennie (David Strathairn), offering awkward, heartfelt offers of companionship; an easy-going womanizer, Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who circles around Chantelle, offering a good time with no pressure, and an understanding of what she needs; and one of May-Alice's soap opera cast members, the elegant Rhonda (Angela Bassett), who visits her with a couple of other actresses. That visit leads to a really funny monologue, where one of the actresses describes the way she gave her all to a tiny movie role, early in her career, where she had only one line and played a woman who had been probed by an alien. (She really researched that character's motivations, and found a dozen different ways to utter her one line about alien probing.)

Both May-Alice and Chantelle give themselves more fully to life as the movie goes by. The alternative is to blot themselves out with alcohol, drugs or hours of TV. They can either try to escape from themselves through self-destruction; or they can live with greater richness and variety of experience, within the constraints of past tragedies and poor choices. The way they open themselves up again to new relationships and experiences is inspiring to watch, particularly because it isn't portrayed in a cloying way.