The Savages: There’s Gray on the Horizon

You’ll thank writer/director Tamara Jenkins in a few years, unfortunately.

savages.jpgGreetings, good people! I have been enjoying three days of a work conference in yon Colonial Williamsburg! Everything is so pleasant here; there are guys in three-cornered hats, sheep safely grazing, and everywhere is the scent of a wood-burning stove. The only blight on this “revolutionary experience,” as they keep calling it, is the fact that a little voice in my brain keeps reminding me, “At some point, you have to sit down and write something about The Savages.”

The Savages, a little film about what it’s like to put a dementia-addled parent into a nursing home (written and directed by Tamara Jenkins and nominated for a couple of Oscars), is probably the exact opposite of a joyful, wood-burning-stove-scented, Colonial conference. It’s not that I didn’t feel that the film was well-made. On the contrary, it’s actually a pretty perfect representation of the guilt and self-disgust one feels while inexpertly dealing with an aged parent. But, by King George!, if I wanted to be reminded of the grayest and most unpleasant parts of my day-to-day life (parts that I have gotten shamefully good at stowing away so that I don’t have to face them unless absolutely necessary), I wouldn’t be seeking escape at the movies!

I understand why there has been an increasing number of films made address these thorny issues in a bleak and realistic manner, I really do. Hip filmmakers and their hip audiences are fast approaching the age where these sorts of things are becoming more and more relevant. You work through your feelings by turning them into art, and you hope that that art resonates with its intended audience. Well, la-de-effing-da, Tamara Jenkins. It resonated. Good for you. No go make a movie about an 18th-century American family who makes their own candles and barrels and heroically fights to lessen the tax on butter churns.

Yes, yes, I am being a little harsh. I don’t really mean it. I know it’s not everybody who happens to have a situation eerily similar to that of siblings Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage. Not now, anyway. But I hate to tell you this, there’s an excellent chance that one day you will. And for that reason, I feel like The Savages should be required viewing for young and old alike. Because as much as I bluster on about the film, the reason it made me so uncomfortable was its accuracy. It’s easy to relate to Wendy Savage, as she constantly second-guesses her own decisions, but it’s just as easy to feel for Jon, who wants to take action, accept the inevitable, and move on. Guilt, shame, powerlessness, and an inability to equate this confused old person in front of you with the powerful figure from your childhood — these things have been happening to adult children for centuries, and it’s not likely to get any better. One thing this movie can give you is the small comfort that you’re not the only one in this predicament, even as it reveals to you the unsavory duties and their corresponding troubling emotions you are likely to experience at least once in your life.

And if you think that’s bad, try watching Away from Her for a powerful glimpse of what it’s like as the spouse of a dementia victim. These movies feel like spring training for a future part of our lives we don’t think much about beyond our 401(k) contributions, and the value of these cinematic resources are probably more than we can even understand at the moment. But all the same, I still stand behind this petition I just wrote to the residents of Hollywood en masse. It’s entitled “Let Them Watch Stardust (And Leave Discomfort to Real Life),” and after you attend your required screening, I will be standing outside of the theater* with a clipboard and a pen. No matter how much you enjoy the film, I’m willing to bet you’ll want to sign.

*The Savages is currently playing at the Regal Cinema Westhampton, and will continue into next week.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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