Maudie: A Marriage of Misfits

I am Canadian, work at an art gallery, but had never heard of Nova Scotia folk painter Maud Lewis before.

That changed when I saw Maudie, and I am really grateful to this beautiful movie for introducing me to her (it was filmed in Newfoundland though).

I saw it around the time my own artist-husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary and it got me thinking about Maud and Everett’s unconventional marriage.

As much as the movie shows Maud painting her charming scenes of rural life in her 13.5 by 12.5-foot house, the story is more about two misfits stumbling their way towards happiness together.

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The artist opening her house covered in paintings (Mongrel Media)

Maud Lewis was born in 1903, tinier than everyone else and with almost no chin. She suffered from juvenile arthritis that worsened as she grew older and made it incredibly difficult for her to hold a paintbrush. In the movie version, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she walks with a limp and keeps her chin tucked in, her body more and more bent as time goes on.

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Typical look on Everett’s face (Mongrel Media)

Everett is an irascible fish peddler with little to no social skills (Ethan Hawke also gives a great performance). That’s why it’s rather funny that when he puts up an ad for a housekeeper and Maud answers it, he takes convincing to accept it.

He reluctantly makes space for Maud in his house, yet doesn’t know what to do with this woman who, despite so much pain in her past (and far from just physical), exudes an infectious joy. She is also very witty.

Everett and Maud eventually get married but they enter into it without ideals. A man Everett works with and his partner are the only witnesses, and he says to the newlywed couple, “I don’t know whether to offer you congratulations or condolences.” Early in the story, he had seen Everett hit Maud.

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Just married (Mongrel Media)

There are definitely times when Everett and Maud’s relationship made me uneasy. As my sister pointed out, their complicated love story is not surprising given they are two hurting people coming together. (My one criticism of the movie is that we don’t know anything of Everett’s past to connect with his pain in the same way we get to with Maud). And yet we see a softer side to Everett as he and Maud spend more time together as husband and wife. Kate Taylor in her Globe & Mail review sums up how I felt watching his character:

Hawke’s precise performance manages to make the plight of an illiterate, insecure and occasionally abusive man deeply sympathetic, inducing pity rather than anger.

When Everett and Maud return home after their wedding, she puts her stocking feet on his dress shoes and they hold each other like they are dancing. She says, “We’re like a pair of odd socks.” He tells her he is an old grey one, all bent and misshapen, while she is a cotton sock, canary yellow. They continue to dance. He says he’s sure to say something cantankerous in the morning again. She smiles.

This was such a tender scene to witness. It showed a choice, an acceptance, to love someone as they are. After living and working together so closely, Maud and Everett didn’t seem to have any illusions about each other. Maud changed Everett to a certain extent, but in other ways, not really. He was still a grumpy, reclusive man who didn’t know what to do with emotion. Do I think they found happiness together? At least the way the film portrayed it, yes. A dying aunt tells Maudie she is probably the only family member who ended up happy. And she certainly looked it, despite her failing body. And she certainly painted it.

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Maud Lewis poses with one of her paintings in front of her home in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia (Courtesy AGNS)

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Infinitely Polar Bear

I was intrigued by the title. And that Mark Ruffalo was starring in it. And then I saw the trailer and I was sold:

I am a sucker for movies that depict the everyday joys and triumphs of life, especially family life. And that’s what Infinitely Polar Bear does. It’s based on writer-director Maya Forbes’ own childhood in 1970s Boston where her father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was unemployable, and her mom went away to New York to earn her MBA in the hopes of lifting their family out of poverty.

According to this article in The Georgia Straight by Melora Koepke, Forbes “wanted to tell a story about everyday life, because those details are the most interesting things to me”.

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It is Maggie’s decision (played by Zoe Saldana) that launches the movie’s bittersweet narrative as their two daughters, Amelia and Faith, get left in the surprising care of their manic depressive father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar-worthy performance). This is where you see a chain-smoking father who so clearly loves his children but struggles with fits of temper, drunkenness, scaring his neighbours with aggressive kindness, and disorderliness to the point that his daughters don’t want to have any of their friends over to their “shit hole.”

I don’t have too much familiarity with bipolar disorder and yet I felt the movie did a fair job of showing the dad’s darker moments, but also showing his endearing side that made him an overall sympathetic character. Scenes of Cam yelling, throwing things, and then sitting depressed on a chair for days are combined with scenes of him spending all night sewing a flamenco dress for Faith or tagging along with his daughters to the park so he isn’t alone all day.

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Mark Ruffalo does a brilliant performance as the manic depressive Cam in Infinitely Polar Bear.

This article disagrees, saying the movie “doesn’t like to spend much time in difficult places.” The author cites the movie’s title as an indication of the movie being “a tad too precious for it’s own good”. The title comes from Faith’s misheard version of her father’s illness.

But I don’t know. I felt there were a lot of deep moments that gave me pause for thought about one’s upbringing, shame, comparison, and the complexity of marriage and parenthood. Cam and Maggie live in a difficult place. The mom is torn every time she comes back on the weekends to visit her family and then leaves them again during the week. Cam is emotionally wrought, being a full-time dad & mom to their girls while their mother’s away, hoping that Maggie will invite him back to live with them all after she’s done her schooling so they can be a family again.

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In a very tender scene between Maggie and her oldest daughter Amelia (played by Forbes’ own daughter Imogene Wolodarsky), Maggie talks about how she met Cam in the late 60s, when everyone was having nervous breakdowns, so she didn’t think it was as big a deal as she knows now. Amelia looks wistful and says, “You’re probably sorry you married him.” “Never,” Maggie responds.

Even at the end of the movie, you still don’t know if they’re going to get back together. There is so much ambiguity. I like how Forbes describes it in the Straight article:

“I would think, ‘I’ll have the parents be divorced, because everyone understands that,’ ” she recalled. “But they’re not divorced, they’re separated. They’re in a grey area. And I decided to go with that grey area, to develop the characters slowly and not to worry so much about keeping them ‘likable’. Will Dad pull it together? Does he want to pull it together? Does Mom want him to pull it together? Sure, she wants their lives to work, but she’s scared, and everything is uncertain. It’s messy, like life. That’s the truth, so I decided to use truth as a guide.”

There were many moments when I laughed out loud—when Cam is dressed in short shorts and a shirt that are the same colour of obnoxious green (aka “the green bug” scene), and when he buys another beat-up car to drive that doesn’t have a floor and the girls are looking down at the moving road under their seats. Having Amelia narrate the story adds a child’s perspective to the scenes, and you feel their embarrassment about how their dad behaves with strangers, what he drives, and how they live. And then there were moments of crying at the difficulty of decisions you make when you’re an adult—how life is rarely ever simple.

The "green bug" goodbye scene

The “green bug” goodbye scene

It’s all very poignant, very well acted, and very in tune with the every day. If that’s your style, I would put this movie on your “must-watch” list of the summer.

Words and Pictures

(warning: there are spoilers in this review, like all my reviews)

Words and Pictures posterHow many times do you get to watch a movie filmed in your city featuring a character who loves words as much as you do?

Yes, I’m a writer and a sucker for teacher movies to begin with, but Words and Pictures is worth the view. Clive Owen plays a quirky English teacher (Jack Markus) at a private school (St. George’s, Vancouver) who laments his students’ lacklustre appreciation for words. He was a former literary star but can’t find the fire to write anymore. He’s also an alcoholic.

english classJuliette Binoche is the reluctant new art teacher (Dina Delsanto) who comes to teach at the school only because she cannot paint full time because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Her quick wit and stoic attitude matches the cane she wields, and she proves a formidable foe for Mr. Markus who declares a war of “Words vs. Pictures” in an effort to inspire his class and prove that words hold more weight than pictures. Delsanto takes up the challenge with her art class and the fun begins.

I say fun because their rivalry is fun and geeky and you know exactly where it’s headed. I learned a lot of 5+ syllable words because Mr. Markus incessantly challenges his colleagues to come up with an equal number or higher syllable word for a word he gives. “Antihistamene.” “Interdenominational”, etc. Delsanto is the only one who plays his game back (and beats him). “Feasibility.” “Anti-egalitarianism.”

rivalryBut the movie had a lot more depth than mere workplace fighting/flirting. The fact that Jack isn’t the school’s literary star anymore and in danger of losing his job creates a lot of pathos. When one of the members of the school board tells him to try and “just be who you were,” Jack replies, “Nobody can.” That was probably one of my favourite lines.

Delsanto also had a great line related to her past. She forms a special bond with one of her art students and tells her that before her arthritis, she learned to paint what she can see, but because of her limitation, she’s now learning to see what she can paint. We witness her gradual journey of moving from portraiture to abstract art as she can no longer hold small brushes to do delicate strokes. She eventually fastens mops from pulleys attached to the ceiling and uses them to spread paint onto the canvas lying on the floor. The result is incredible—especially considering that Juliette Binoche painted all the pieces herself, on camera, and in just a two-month period. Talk about a talented woman. You can read more about that process here.

painting with mopsWords and Pictures brings up questions of education, bullying, alcoholism, limitations, inspiration, forgiveness, desperation, love, and so on. A few times throughout the movie, I remember thinking, “This is a lot sadder than I had expected.” I liked being surprised though. One critique I will make is that the ending—the “Words vs. Pictures” school-wide assembly was a little anticlimactic, especially from Mr. Markus. You’d think he’d have finally written a poem of his own, but he doesn’t. We still don’t know about the future of his job situation, but I guess that’s less important than knowing if he and Delsanto are together (which of course you do know; this is a romantic comedy after all).

the kissWatching this movie in Vancouver and seeing shots of the Fraser River (where Delsanto’s studio is), Wendel’s Coffee Shop in Fort Langley, and St. George’s School in Vancouver added that much more enjoyment to it.

If you’re a writer or an artist, this one’s definitely for you. And even if you’re not, I think you’ll like it too.