With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, the season is now fully upon us. And by “season,” I don’t mean the gift-giving or tree-trimming, or any of the other bits of pine-scented magic that drift over the nation during the last few weeks of the year. The season I’m thinking of is the Season of Journeys.
More than any other time of year, these last five weeks of the year seem to be chock-a-block with coming and goings. Family and friends make the rounds, bringing holiday cheer to those farflung relatives not seen for the other 11 months of the calendar. We wake early and follow our treasure maps around shopping malls and downtowns, stopping only for a four-dollar, vaguely coffee-flavored bit of sustenance. Holiday parties, office events, maybe a bit of religion for good measure—it all adds up to a heck of a lot of miles on the odometer. This week, a few films promise to give us a break while taking us on journeys of their own.
First up is Philomena, a new film from art-house favorite Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things). Based on a 2009 book by ex-BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, the film—playing now at Amherst Cinema—tells the story of Philomena Lee’s journey to find her son, a child given up for adoption decades earlier.
As a young, pregnant teenager in the Ireland of the 1950s, Lee (Judi Dench) faced hard choices. Shunned by her family and sent to a convent in Tipperary, she was forced to work in the nuns’ laundry as a way of repaying them for their help during childbirth. She only saw her son, Anthony, for an hour each day. When he was three, the convent signed him away to an adoptive family in America. For the next 50 years, Philomena Lee tried to learn something about where he had been sent, but church doctrine disallowed her any knowledge of her son.
When, late in life, she meets Sixsmith—himself a bit adrift after losing a high-ranking job in the Blair government—the pair embark on a trip to the States to track down the adult Anthony. Along the way, this odd couple—Lee is a plainspoken woman who, despite her past, retains a strong religious faith, while Sixsmith (played here by British actor Steve Coogan) is a sophisticated but cynical sort—learn enough from each other that the end of their story becomes less important than how it’s been told.
Following that film at Amherst are two more that chart very different American journeys. Nebraska is the new film from Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways). In it, Bruce Dern (Coming Home) stars as a rough-edged father who ropes his son (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte) into a road trip to claim a possibly non-existent fortune. Like Payne’s earlier film About Schmidt—another road-trip movie set in the director’s native Nebraska—this film uses our open highways to tell the interconnected stories of family life in America.
And in the new documentary American Promise, the journey from kindergarten to high school graduation is explored by directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. These middle-class, African-American parents from Brooklyn follow their son Idris and his best friend Seun as they enter Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School, only to find that American education is still struggling to come to terms with questions of race, class, and opportunity. To shed more light on the topic, the theater is hosting a live Skype interview with the filmmakers on Monday, Dec. 9.
And finally this week, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College is sponsoring a special Wednesday night screening of Journey to Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking 1954 work about a British couple on holiday during the declining years of their marriage. Immensely influential, it raised a modernist flag in the Italian film world that would be followed for years to come. Screening at Amherst Cinema as a complement to the This Just In! exhibit of Pompeii artifacts at the college, it will be introduced by Mead director Elizabeth Barker and Smith College Professor of Art Barbara Kellum.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.