Upside Cinema

“Holiday Season” in Hollywood often means two things: Awards movies and feel-good, family fare. And the two usually do not overlap. Sadly. However, this season a lot of the happiest, most joyful films are also some of the best, most critically acclaimed and Oscar buzzworthy. Could it be that Hollywood is finally waking up to the fact that movies can be real, gritty, AND positive? That “true to life” does not always need to leave the audience feeling morose and down on humanity?

Take the film Juno, for example. Here’s a film that straddles the line between fluffy teen comedy and heavy relationship drama with utmost ease. It’s a beautiful, maturely told story that cuts no emotional corners and doesn’t force-feed anything (whether it be laughs or tears). It deals with serious human turmoil (teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce) with a rare and elegant nuance that manages to make it funny without making light of it. When 16-year-old Juno (the unforgettable Ellen Page) tells her parents that she’s been “dealing with things way beyond my maturity level,” she might as well be speaking for the film as a whole. Juno could so easily have slipped into cheap teen sex comedy, Alexander Payne-esque satire or some heavy-handed family melodrama (Life as a House comes to mind), but it refuses to be pigeonholed in any one of these genres. Instead, Juno focuses on its characters and life in general. The result is a film that feels frayed and weary but ultimately hopeful—and above all, real.

Some other films that have come out recently have also taken the high road and made the messiness of life seem somehow lovely and affirming. Bella is an obvious example—a film that hinges on a serious matter (unwanted pregnancy) but is otherwise concerned with everyday joys like good food, family, and dancing. Dan in Real Life also has this feeling of joyful revelry and earnestness (even if it sometimes feels a tad forced). One of my favorite films of the year, Lars and the Real Girl, also features sadness and strife within an overwhelmingly warm, life-is-good worldview. I would even put The Savages into this group. It’s a seemingly glum film about aging and death, but the way that it refuses to let its characters fall victim to cynicism and self-destruction makes it ultimately just as hopeful and loving as Enchanted (itself a prime example of this “feel-good cinema” trend).

These types of films come as a breath of fresh air to the typical “prestige/arthouse” fare that wallows in human depravity and despair. I’m thinking specifically of two films that have recently released (to critical acclaim) that I think are more despairing and nihilistic than they need be: Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Both of the these films are high-quality and superbly acted (especially Margot… Nicole Kidman is remarkable), but both left me feeling like I needed to take a shower to wash away the despair and macabre family dysfunction. Both films focus on family, and in each case there is little to no love to go around. Devil is about a pair of brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who rob their own parents and descend into a spiral of sex, drugs, and cover-up. Margot is more subtle and passive-aggressive, but perhaps even more insidious. Even Jack Black (at his manic slacker best) cannot lift the film out of its pervasive misanthropy and existential confusion. Even Ingmar Bergman—in all of his nihilistic eloquence—never plumbed the hateful depths that are mined in Margot.

I’m not saying such films are not useful or worth seeing—they are, in small doses, just like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. But as “true” as they may seem (and as admittedly resonant as the acting is), I’d much rather see a million Juno replicas. These feel-good art films are just as real and skillful and uncompromising as the “downer” best picture nominees—the difference is that the “reality” they choose to portray is the upside of life, not the underbelly. And I daresay our world needs a lot more “upside” stories right now.