Too Close for Comfort: The Movies That Hit Way Too Close To Home
We’ve talked about movies we relate to, and we’ve talked about movies we won’t be watching again. But, watching a movie I describe below, I realized there was an uncharted area in Pajiba listory — the movies that hit us way too close to home. It’s a very specific movie-watching experience, one that is at once cathartic and too painful. To see your experience played out onscreen, it’s a nice reminder that you’re not alone; but, you’re still viewing painful reminders of how wrong it all went.
These are the movies that hurt. — Courtney Enlow
Side Effects: Before the first game-changing twist in Steven Soderbergh’s psychological “thriller,” Side Effects seems like a typically maudlin indie film about the debilitating aspects of depression and drug dependency, prescription or otherwise. The most insightful addition to the story is Jude Law’s portrayal of a doctor who is far too dependent on kickbacks from Big Pharma to really give his patients the help they need. This is an issue that is largely ignored by the public but too easily rends asunder otherwise innocent lives and families. I could relate to Channing Tatum’s growing frustration and sense of helplessness as his fictional wife sunk deeper with the aid of a medical professional, and all too well. Having grown up with a father who spent the better part of 13 years addicted to painkillers, like Rooney Mara’s in the film, my dad’s dependency was unfathomably debilitating. On pills, Mara and my father slept constantly and lost their jobs, before entering distressing fugue states they will never remember. No amount of pleading from their spouses, Tatum and my mother, respectively, could stop them from doing the one thing they mistakenly believe is making them better, healthier people. And then the twist. From my own past, I should have seen it coming. While the only lasting scars from my dad’s drug days are emotional, it could have easily turned out as dire and bloody as Mara’s. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch, but it was also exhilarating to finally see a movie tackle this subject with a degree of terrifying realism that is usually ignored in favor of pat morality lessons. Of course, then the other twists start piling up so much, that first one’s power is muted in the movie’s final moments. But the movie haunts me still, long after the credits rolled. How close the story came to a distressing greatness. How close my own life came to matching it. — Rob Payne
Smashed: We settled in for a movie night, my husband and I. We hadn’t yet seen Smashed, but we had heard great things and, given the subject matter, we knew we’d relate. But, I didn’t know how much.
The thing is, like with most movies about life-ruining addiction, filled with images of the main addict engaging in dangerous, damning behavior indicative of a major problem, my husband didn’t actually feel that connected to the characters during those scenes. And for good reason — he doesn’t remember those moments of his own life. It’s the bright side of recovery — there’s stuff you get to not remember. But I don’t have that ability. I remember everything. And watching this movie was like seeing those memories played out on film, with my husband played by two people — Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul.
Possibly the part that hit me the hardest was just that — the absence of the suffering spouse character that often permeates these movies but rarely gets it quite right in my estimation. (I already talked about the one that did.) But, simply by not including that character, this movie depicted what that time felt like — like I wasn’t there. I watched these characters self-destruct, no way to reason with them, no way to save them, and that’s what my life was for five years. A life where I wasn’t a character in his addiction drama.
It’s been nearly three years since my husband got sober. He’s doing so well. I, on the other hand, am still broken. I may always be. And, in those peaceful moments where I forget that, where I too am doing well, all it takes is a movie like Smashed and I’m right back where I was. — Courtney Enlow
Steel Magnolias: I had seen the 1989 dramedy Steel Magnolias before the fall of 2000, and multiple times at that. But catching the Herbert Ross film, based on Robert Harling’s 1987 play, on TV one afternoon when I was 16, I saw it differently. I’ve been unable to watch the movie in its entirety since. No, I don’t know what it is like to lose a child, but I did lose my best friend that fall in a car accident. Watching Julia Roberts as Shelby made me think of my friend, and my young mind clung to all the similarities between them. Shelby is a nurse; my friend, also 16, wanted to be a nurse. Shelby loves the color pink; so did my friend. And Shelby does not always get along with her strong-willed mother, M’Lynn (Sally Field), who only wants the best for her equally stubborn daughter. My friend and her mother were the same. As soon as Shelby collapses at home from kidney failure and M’Lynn is shown speed-walking through the hospital to be at her side, I have to turn away. I can’t keep watching. I can’t help but picture my friend’s mother, running to the site of the accident not too far from their home on a rainy November Saturday, desperate to know if her daughter, the oldest of four siblings, was OK. During the funeral scenes, I can’t not picture her mother at the graveside. But I also picture myself and my friends — a group of young women, arms linked, remembrance ribbons pinned to their sweaters, still reeling from how quickly everything had changed. M’Lynn wouldn’t make it without her friends. I wouldn’t have made it without mine. M’Lynn’s monologue at Shelby’s casket hits every emotion that stems from death beat for beat: You’re devastated, but you also want to hit something. Steel Magnolias is beautiful. And it is real. — Sarah Carlson
Tiny Furniture: Tiny Furniture was a film that hit me at exactly the right time, and I’d never seen a chronicle of my life laid out so clearly. I, too, was a less-than-hot girl who was a year or two out of college with a useless artistic degree, flailing about with my life, liking guys who didn’t like me back, and the similarities went on and on, as if we were all living identical lives. For every movie that felt kinda close, this was thoroughly modern and absolutely accurate to the place that many of my friends found themselves in as well. From the conversations to the situations and relationships, Tiny Furniture moved me immensely, and I was an early champion of the film and Dunham’s work, stunned that no one else had ever put these very normal and (to me!) culturally pervasive incidents on film.
Lena Dunham and I are exactly the same age, and have had very, very similar experiences in our lives. Except she found a way to turn it into something real. Her stories, which are, in a way, my story, have found a place in the world, and I thank her and curse her for that. — Amanda Mae Meyncke
Lost in Translation: Lost in Translation played festivals throughout 2003 before hitting theaters that fall. When it came out, I was a senior in college, and I was absolutely ready to put school behind me. I was ready to ditch blue books and Scantrons, papers and assigned reading; I was ready to forget the professors who wouldn’t stop talking to me like a child. Most of all, I was ready to move from the small Texas town where I attended college to Los Angeles, where I knew I had to be. I spent the spring of 2003, when I was a college junior, at an L.A. program where I took a few classes, interned as a script reader, and fell in love. It wasn’t real love, but I wouldn’t know that until later. The first ones are never the right kind of real, anyway. But I was in a new place and trying a new life and intoxicated at how many possibilities the world seemed to hold then, and part of it had a lot to do with falling awkwardly in love with someone I would never really be with, though we still talk and still value each other. That connection was a fierce one, so strong that leaving L.A. to return to Texas for one more year — one more year until I could go back to California, where she’d stayed, and see what might really happen — was grating and uncomfortable. We talked on the phone constantly, and I spent a lot of that school year dealing with the basic low-level emotional turmoil that’s endlessly fascinating to 21-year-olds and laughable to everyone else.
And then I saw Lost in Translation. A movie about a man and a woman who meet in a place far from both of their homes, and who, in their time together, establish a connection they can’t quite define but whose presence seems to change something in both of them for good. It was too much, too soon, too close, too real. It was just too me. At the end, when Bill Murray whispers in Scarlett Johanssson’s ear, I thought I understood what he said. I made out words of comfort and support. I’m not lying: I completely believed I heard him say something, and for a few days I actually held what he said close. But then, somehow, it grew fuzzier, and I couldn’t quite remember it. It was there, but I couldn’t reach it. Later, when I saw the film on DVD, I switched on the subtitles to see what he says, but it just said something like “[Indistinct mumbling].” Basic searching — or whatever passed for it in 2003-2004 — didn’t help, either. But I’d have sworn when I saw the movie that I heard every word he whispered. It didn’t even occur to me until later that it was an intentionally vague moment; not until I talked to other people did I realize that they hadn’t heard anything. They’d just heard whispers. But not me, not then. I heard every word. Every word I wanted to hear, or to say, to have said, or to have said to me. Every word that would have made things easier. Every word. — Daniel Carlson
The Descendants: When I read The Descendants, I found it a depressingly accurate description of the death of a loved one: the world doesn’t stop, they don’t become perfect, you still have to go out and be in the world, and in the midst of the horribleness you can have good or even great moments. While the movie was far from perfect, I felt that it captured that aspect of the book very well. Elizabeth King didn’t become a better person, or mother, just because she was dying. Her daughters had to grieve her without being able to resolve their hurts. Her husband had to grieve her while discovering new betrayals, and handling a real-estate deal that had been years in the making. There was no tearful bedside resolution, no forgiveness or heart-felt confessions. No final, beautiful moment that a family can cherish to get them through the loss of their loved one. Elizabeth King’s life simply ended, and the lives of the people who loved her went on. It is terribly un-cinematic and frighteningly real. — Genevieve Burgess
This Boy’s Life — My upbringing was dramatically different from the upbringing of author Tobias Wolff, whose memoirs were adapted into the Leonardo DiCaprio/Robert DeNiro movie, This Boy’s Life. Wolff came of age in the ’50s, and I came of age in the early ’90s; Wolff had an abusive father he wanted to escape, and I lived in home I wanted to escape — not because of a terrible father, but because there was a hole in the ceiling of my home where expired and moldy non-perishables leaked out from the attic, because the house was heated with a box fan perched behind a gas stove, because my bed was a box spring on the floor, and because the stray animals that came in and out of our home left their shit behind, which was dried and matted in every corner of the house.
Like Wolff, we both came to an epiphany that the only way out was through college. Mine came the morning a cockroach climbed out of my cereal bowl. That was the day I decided I would apply, I would be accepted, and I would escape, and like DiCaprio’s character in This Boy’s Life, the day I received my acceptance letter to college was the best day of my life because it meant that I would finally be free of poverty. “I reached through the flames and took it, and I never looked back. ” — Dustin Rowles
Mommie Dearest: A recent segment on This American Life about a young man who fled an unhappy childhood to seek out his favorite author, Piers Anthony, ended with this quote from Anthony on unhappy childhoods:
“One thing you who had secure or happy childhoods should understand about those of us who did not. We who control our feelings, who avoid conflicts at all costs, or seem to seek them. Who are hypersensitive, self-critical, compulsive, workaholic, and above all survivors. We are not that way from perversity, and we cannot just relax and let it go. We’ve learned to cope in ways you never had to.”
So that’s my thing. The thing that cuts into my heart. Those of you who had happy childhoods may not understand, and there are certainly plenty of people who sport a “get over it already” attitude. Sure, okay. But I’d like you to imagine your life without the foundation of support, affection and understanding you had growing up. (I know many of you are already there.) Without that baseline encouragement, without someone to fit you with the armor and skills you’d need to grow up and face the world, the whole world falls apart. And I don’t like talking about this in public. I really, really don’t. But that’s what we’re here for, right? To talk about the uncomfortable things? So that’s my thing. My home life was terrible, my mother was an alcoholic and I grew up with the notion that I was completely worthless. And, of course, there are people who have it worse. The world is crowded with people who have it worse. And my mother, at her drunken, sneering worst, used to refer to herself as Mommie Dearest. So, no, that fun campy movie that everyone loves to reenact? I can’t watch it. It’s too close. — Joanna Robinson
Requiem For a Dream: Requiem For a Dream, the film about addiction by Darren Aronofsky, is a piece of cinema that’s scientifically designed to mess your shit up. Aronofsky has a talent for shocking imagery that somehow manages to tow the line between grotesque and artistic. The pencil scene in Pi and hell, most of The Black Swan, are evidence of this fact. While the vast majority of the people who have viewed it can probably legitimately claim some kind of trauma, I’m betting most didn’t view the film while in rehab themselves, with a recovering heroin addict.
I was a difficult teenager. While my peers would openly defy their parents, often with shouted treatises regarding fairness and how it usually wasn’t, I was, on the surface, a much more acquiescent type. I would agree to all of your rules and regulations and then, promptly and with as much deviousness that I could muster, follow absolutely none of them. This is why when I was caught for the second time smoking pot and ingesting hallucinogens with startling regularity, my parents forced me to sign a contract promising I would quit such behavior while living under their roof. Which led to the third time and the ultimatum that I was presented with. I would attend a yearlong inpatient rehab, or I was no longer welcome in their home apart from holidays and the random Sunday afternoon dinner. It wasn’t without precedent. I had attended, and gamed my way through, an outpatient rehab as a condition of my original living at home contract.
Rehab was a sobering experience to say the least, and one of the guys I ended up becoming close friends with was a recovering heroin addict. Not the cool Robert Downey Jr. kind, but the shooting up in McDonald’s bathrooms and stealing shit from Walmart to finance your habit kind. The stories he told were bone chilling and starkly astounding. He and I were in a choir together while in recovery. We traveled the country for two months out of our year of time in the program, singing in churches about how we were “cleaning up what we messed up” and telling moving stories to rapt congregations about how we were sorry for all the bad stuff we’d done and wanted to make it right, and please don’t do what we did. One of the legs of the trip coincidentally ended up being nearby to my parents’, and they generously offered to house a few of us while we were in the area.
That’s how he and I ended up watching Requiem for a Dream on a tiny television in my darkened bedroom. We both cried more than once. I remember the scene where Jared Leto shoots up in an infected vein. I watched with horror and then turned to my friend, who simply said, “I’ve seen that happen before.” Just the knowledge that he had lived a version of that film brought the whole thing home for me in a way no other movie has affected me since. When the final credits rolled, my soul felt empty. Not just bruised or sullied, but missing entirely. That hole scared the hell out of me. The feeling can still be summoned with some concentration and focus, and each time the emptiness has a face and a human component to it that scores the quick of me with precision. I’ve never watched it again, and never will. That film shined a light on something inside of me that I have no desire to open up ever again. — Mike Roorda