Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Savages

This is a brave film that deals with the subject of dementia head-on. The sleeve notes describe this film as 'hysterically funny and irreverent', I found it to be neither. It is realistic, gritty and it recognises that there are no perfect solutions when dealing with a messy subject like this. The story explores obligation, guilt and a host of other emotions as it seeks an understanding of what is meaningful and what is not.

Lennie Savage lives with his 'girlfriend' of 20 years in Sun City, Arizona. His behaviour is getting more extreme and the carer who comes in to look after his partner provokes an incident that sets in train a series of events. The first one being that Lennie's partner dies whilst having a manicure in a Beauty Parlour. Her children cite a legal agreement made by the seniors that neither would have any call on each others possessions at any stage in the future and they 'evict' Lenny so that they can sell the house. Even at this point in the film it is worth reflecting on the image of retirement that sun City presents - manicured and synthetic.

Lenny's children - both around the 40 year-old mark are then brought into the picture. Jon is a College Professor living in Buffalo, up-state New York. He is in a relationship with a Polish girl but her visa has expired and she has to return to Poland. He cannot commit to marriage and muddles on through this messy and dysfunctional relationship. Wendy is also single. She lives in a grubby apartment in New York City and works as a temp to sustain her real passion as a playwright. Wendy is in what appears to be a long-term affair with a married man who is facing his own mid-life crisis. She craves attention and intimacy, he craves sex. Another dysfunctional relationship.

Jon, the elder of the two, always takes the lead and is presented as the rational, logical sibling. Wendy is always portrayed as the one rooted in the fantasy dream-world of possibilities, unable to deal with hard realities confronting her. The two siblings, clearly struggling to develop their own fulfilling relationship with one another, battle the emotional and mental wounds inflicted in their childhood at the hands of Lenny and the absent Mom to fulfil their sense of obligation towards their now confused and ageing father.

There are a number of small moments when the curtain is pulled back and light floods in. When Wendy is mechanically having sex with her lover and instead of concentrating on the moment - or her lover - she reaches out to his ailing Labrador for a sign of affection. Jon, delivering a class on Bertolt Brecht encounters the distinctions he is outlining in his lecture played out in his life as he receives a phone call. Or when Wendy is taken seriously by Jimmy, a carer in Lenny's Nursing Home, her only means of responding is to grab him and kiss him passionately. There are many more.

The film invites you to make parallels with your own situation - your childhood, family dys/functionality and outlook for your parents. I am an only child so I missed out on squabbling sibling rivalry - something I've always regretted. Both my parents are long dead and so I was never faced with the spectre of dementia - although through my work I have encountered it many times. What I could readily tap into were the feelings of obligation and guilt that being a member of a family automatically engender. The story also invites you to side with either Jon or Wendy - the realist or dreamer. Perhaps my characterisation of them betrays whose side I am on!

The film raises wider questions of how dysfunctional families who are geographically dispersed and who are unable to create and sustain new and meaningful relationships for themselves should function when circumstances throw them back into a tight-knit situation. It would have been easy for Jon and Wendy to say we've not seen Dad in 20 years and Mom in longer - let welfare take care of him. But they didn't. They did what they could and Jon's pragmatism recognised that Lenny needed specialist care - care beyond their ability to deliver. The compromise wasn't perfect - but it gave them more than they had before. Is this a realistic and best hoped-for-outcome?

Much of the story is brought into focus as Jon views a rehearsal of one of Wendy's plays. It's subversive auto-biographical angle sheds light on how the Savages got to be where they are.

Life is messy.

Excellent acting from Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Laura Linney. A film to get under your skin - whatever your age. If it prompts you to make preparations now while all stake-holders can own the outcome we can receive it as gift. If this is too much to ask for, we can enjoy it as a gentle comedy that peels the veneer off living with dementia.

Go watch it - you'll be rewarded. I'm giving it 8/10.

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