In the past years, I started collecting virtual lists of therapeutic films I started sharing here. I think I need to reorganize that initiative and extend the criteria and the categories that I include, especially since my recommendations have been well received by my former clients (I’m not doing consulting work anymore since I got accidentally heavy metals poisoning which have also been causing some neurological symptoms).
As They Made Us (2022) is a US production, an independent narrative feature film about communication between parents and children. This particular review is both a response to the film and to some of the reviews it got.
Abigail Fray is a divorced mother of two children taking care of her parents when her dad is falling sicker and sicker, after her brother Nathan left some decades ago to another part of the country. She is trying to deal with her own issues while also supporting her parents to deal with their own.
My review is subjective since the film has highly emotionally impacted me, as would be expected of adults who have been traumatized by alcoholic parents (such as mine) who refuse to solve their issues even if they got old.
The interpretation of the female lead, Dianna Agron, as Abigail Fray, has made me empathize with her pain of not being understood, heard or accepted and then losing connection to some of the people she was close to in her origin family. The flashbacks help the viewer understand what happened in Abigail and Nathan’s childhood similar to another codependency psychological drama, The Glass Castle (2017). The film is also similar to another masterpiece, Felicia, above all (2008) which I have reviewed here and here. I think these three movies, along with Run (2020) and Phantom Thread (201&) are the most illustrative of codependency issues. Illustrative, as in films that people with those problems can relate to, not as in best films that would knock Citizen Kane off its pedestal in film history.
In a similar way to these four other movies, the director creates emotion through the masterful use of actors and/or music. At the same time, this movie is special by being different. Unfortunately, for some (critics), different might get classified as “weird” or unusual. My argument is that although this movie does not correspond to a format that might have been expected by watchers, in this case, different is valuable and interesting and I will explain why I think so.
Bob Strauss argued in the San Francisco Chronicle that basically, the film script has some holes that are not explained or look weird. I will assimilate watching As They Made Us with an invitation to a private party. When you get invited to a private party, you should not expect to understand everyone from the first look or have everything make sense. Especially considering this is obviously a psychological movie, I would rather think that what seems harder to understand might actually be an invitation to insight and exploration. When you get invited to a private party, you might also notice what the guest wants to show you, not necessarily everything you would be curious to be poking around. One observation I do agree with that Bob makes is the quality of lighting in the direction of photography. Yes, it shows that the movie had a limited budget. At the same time, to keep things fair, let’s remember that this is not the directorial debut of a director of photography who had a studio budget like Jan De Bont had with Speed (1994). At the same time, Bob did make the honorable comparison between Mayim Bialik’s script and Florian Zeller’s script for The Father (2020). Considering that Zeller is one of the lead French playwrights of our times, author of 10 films, and Oscar winner, I would say Mayim is off to a great start. The Father also had an elaborate structure that was required for the expected exposition. In this case, such a structure was not needed.
Tomris Laffly from Variety reproached the writer/director “Bialik falls short of representing Abigail’s livelihood plausibly”, questions the motivations of the estrangement between the parents and Nathan and concludes that the film leaves overall a minor, even inconsequential impression.
Let’s rewind a little bit. Plausibility? Really? Do we happen to live in parallel universes? I know a lot of women like Abigail. I dated women like Abigail. I even felt like as guest in her kitchen watching the movie. Even more so, I would bet that statistically, each of the reviewers who have written about this movie knows at least a few adults, former victims of alcoholic parents in codependent relationships, who are struggling with boundaries. I actually believe that this particular effect has become even more visible in the years that have passed since the beginning of the corona crisis in 2020, with lockdowns forcing people to mix their professional lives with their personal lives, no matter if they had a preference for specificness or diffuseness in the scope of values and rules as defined by the great American sociologist Talcott Parsons. I remember that in 2021 I actually had to invent a new NLP technique to support a client to deal with the issue of boundaries because none of the techniques that I knew for this worked. Apparently, American society needs a wave of films presenting this problem to make it more visible on the screens, otherwise, it might fall apart as seeming of little importance.
The respectable veteran Richard Roeper from Sun-Times Chicago states that the film is a depressingly downbeat story that shows us characters hard to like. I don’t understand why that would be expected in every family drama. Drama is essentially about how characters manage to triumph against a difficult background. Comedy is essentially about how characters manage to fail even if they have all resources available. The antagonists in the film are the parents. They are not supposed to be there to be liked, they are supposed to be there to be understood, accepted, and forgiven, which is something clearly suggested through direction, acting, music, photography, and editing. One of the advantages that this film offers is the possibility of actually focusing more on the present (as a difference from The Glass Castle where about half of the movie happens in the past) and have the characters gain depth as how they are in the now. This is yet another reviewer who uses the implausibility term like there is a straight manual of what is expected of adult children when their old parents are dying. The dour air and the predictable nature of the script are reproached in Richard Roeper’s chronicle as well.
Christy Lemire argues in her review that there seem to be two dramas merged into one (another statement as to the economic nature of the script), that “it takes a little while to achieve that groove” (it’s called character setup); “the back-and-forth structure gives the film an uneasy early rhythm” (so did Memento).
Reading the reviews on MetaCritic about this film confirmed my choice a few years ago of paying less and less attention to what critics say and, in consequence, to what the filmmakers offer in terms of new films. This is not something new. I started noticing many years ago the tendency of young reviewers (and occasionally of veterans) to pass solid film observations and arguments to prefer unsubstantiated adjectives. I think that the limited understanding of this film is obvious proof that reviewing does not only stand for political values and film quality, it also serves as a benchmarking standard for how well a new production fits in within the expectations of a genre or a subgenre. Or maybe I’m getting too old. Maybe I tend to cry out for a time when internet film critics such as Roger Ebert, Eric D. Snider, James Berardinelli, and Desson Patrick Thomson (formerly known as Howe) used to make argumentation for what they believed about a film instead of dropping adjectives and adverbs out of context or even out of touch with reality.
Even more so, I got reminded of how the film When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) got misunderstood by a reviewer for the fact that it presented an alcoholic woman (instead of a man) and asked “what’s her problem? she seems to have everything”. Of course, there will always be critics who don’t get it, but that’s why the effort of making psychological movies deserves, even more, commendation: there are always people (and film critics) who need to get a psychological education that they seem to miss in contact with reality.
Therefore, let me tell you what I understood and how I saw As They Made Us.
***** SPOILER ALERT ********
Abigail is never seen in a session with a therapist during the movie, but its effect is seen on the screen. Such an effect can mainly be noticed by someone who either provides therapy or who has gone through the trouble of therapy. Abigail does not have an epic confrontation with her mother, like Felicia does in the film Felicia, above all (2009), but her efforts of creating a balance between expressing herself in some scenes and restraining her emotions in others are a direct behavioral response of what usually happens in therapy, as a patient gets confronted with the same kind of triggers as in the past. I’m not saying that either of these behaviors is right or wrong, I’m saying it’s difficult to find a balance, but seeking that balance is what gives the character Abigail virtue. It’s a frustrating, inconsistent process, with slip-ups and high grounds, with winning and failures which are shown on the screen as unspectacular as it is in real life. Is it entertaining? No, it isn’t (especially when you compare it to films that had bigger budgets). Is it realistic? Yes, it is. So Mayim Bialik is proving to be an economic writer, saving screen time by showing us directly the results (for those who can see it). In the same direction, in some of the scenes 6 months after the death of her father, the film shows us a version of Abigail that is standing up for her boundaries with assertiveness.
(keep reading ↓)
Graphics by Diana Andreea Badragan
Abigail is not shown working because this movie is not about her work. The purpose of the film was not to give the viewers a transversal section through the whole life of Abigail. At the same time, it is shown towards the end of the movie that she manages to have a story written by her on the cover of the magazine she works for. This is another example of “Show, Don’t Tell“, which is yet another successfully more economic, and cinematic way of film expression in comparison to The Glass Castle (2017). It is though true that The Glass Castle had gorgeous cinematography, which As They Made Us obviously doesn’t which in my mind is the main reason for which this film fails short of being a cinematic masterpiece. Even so, I believe the film stands its own ground as a subtle (not brilliant) psychological masterpiece.
At the same time, As They Made Us effortlessly exudes the inner peace that other film authors have been striving hard to show on the screen. How do we see that? We see it by having layered all the essential ingredients for:
Understanding is being shown. through the flashbacks. they are less extended in comparison to The Father (2020) or The Glass Castle (2017) but they don’t need to be. Understanding is also provided by the actors’ emotional expressions, their pace, their breath, their pauses, and the tone of their voices.
Acceptance is shown through the systemic repetition of the triggering effect from Barbara (Candice Bergen’s character, the mother of Abigail) around her husband and her daughter. Her children and her husband have accepted her and they love her, even if some choose to do it from a distance.
Forgiveness is shown at the memorial service and compassion is conveyed as a directorial invitation through music.
Change/transformation is shown in the scene toward the film’s ending when we see what happens 6 months after the memorial service.
Overall, the film seems to me as a wonderful testimony that Mayim Bialik has overcome the death of her own father in a cathartic way that marks a contribution to this corner of history for the psychological film.
The way that the four main actors of the film are playing their parts shows directorial talent and promising style, which is something obvious when we look at their sync and correlate it with what the story conveys. I also loved to see again Candice Bergen which I barely remembered from watching Murphy Brown in childhood and Dustin Hoffman which I haven’t seen in a new film since the masterful L’uomo del labirinto (2019).
********* END OF SPOILERS ALERT *********
This film is a therapist’s dream, it is the kind of frame – it posts it that a psychologist would like to show their clients as a result of what therapy can bring. It’s not obvious, it’s not spectacular, and it’s not entertaining. But it is there, for everyone who has eyes to see it.
It should not be surprising that the author (writer, director, producer) of the film has a Ph.D. degree in neuroscience, is an expert on parenting, a bestselling book author, and a healthy habits author who hosts a podcast on mental health.
Copyright text © Marcus Victor Grant 2022-present, all rights reserved.
Copyright images: Quiver Distribution, Diana Andreea Badragan, psych. Irina Chirita.
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