Here is my problem: I like my fictional characters with some dimension. I can do without villains who are all darkness and heroes who are all light. Among the chaos and tribalism of Long Beach, LA in 1994, the character of Erin Gruwell is just too uniformly, unrealistically good. I’m sure the real-life person of Erin Gruwell is a woman of integrity, generosity and courage, but I don’t think she was ever as perfect as the character we see in the movie. There’s nuance all around; her students are both victims of the gang culture and its participants. They suffer from LA’s damaged race relations but they’re also part of the problem. Gruwell’s colleagues are sympathetic up to a point; after going through 12 years of public school in the U.S. and teaching for 2 years in Albania, I can absolutely relate to Imelda Staunton’s character stating that “you can’t make someone want to learn.”
Then we have Erin Gruwell as portrayed by Hilary Swank, with no shortcomings or imperfections to be seen. In her first days of teaching, she is clearly unprepared for the classroom environment, but she’s also trying to hard to get it right that she can’t be seen as anything other than an honestly dedicated educator. She eventually has her “holy shit” moment when she sees what her students have to deal with in their daily lives, and asks herself if she has any business trying to do the job, but by then she’s already been so obviously focused on her students’ needs that the viewer is left the wonder if she really needed to have that moment.
The one acknowledged imperfection on Gruwell’s part that the movie portrays is that the drive and generosity that make her such an effective teacher also make her a rather inconsiderate spouse, so it’s no surprise when her marriage falls apart. Even so, while it’s obvious that Erin should have thought about how her husband would feel about her spending her every waking hour doing what’s necessary for her students, by that point in the movie, Patrick Dempsey’s character looks so lame and shallow next to the shining goodness of Hilary Swank that I just couldn’t get angry at her. She doesn’t need him! Her students appreciate her, and her father understands her far, far better than her husband ever did!
I don’t blame this on Hilary Swank; she radiates sweetness and light, arguably by default, but not if the part demands otherwise. She was no angel in Boys Don’t Cry, and in P.S. I Love You she was a good person but not a saint. I blame the character’s glaring perfection on the script and direction; it was a movie that dared us to feel for the kids even while they terrorized each other, but then didn’t trust us to love their teacher warts and all. Any teacher who does what Erin Gruwell did for her classes at Woodrow Wilson is obviously a brilliant specimen of humanity. She can be brilliant without being flawless.
We see a further betrayal of reality in North Country, which tells the true story of the sexual harassment that plagued the women employed in the Minnesota iron mines through the made-up character of Josey Aimes as portrayed by Charlize Theron. Again, I have nothing against the actor in the lead; Theron does an admirable job with her role, although if the Hollywood mouthpieces expect us to see this role as “unglamorous,” they are way off. Theron in Monster was unglamorous; here she is a beautiful woman with a moderately unflattering haircut. Anyway, her performance as Aimes is fine; admirably balanced between vulnerability and badassery.
The problem I have with the movie is that her character is fictional.
In order to make a point about the larger environment in which the female miners lived, we learn about Aimes’s life in stages throughout the movie, and the farther we go into it, the more appalling her life story turns out to be. I will spoil the movie’s revelations about Aimes, in chronological rather than cinematic order: she became pregnant with her son when her high school teacher raped her (and her then-boyfriend witnessed the rape and walked away), and then she spent years letting her father and other fine upstanding citizens treat her like a slut for having the temerity to conceive. She later got married and had another kid with a man who took his rage out on her when he lost his job, so after she got tired of her husband hitting her, she packed up the kids and ran back to her parents’ house, where her father treated her like a pockmark on the family’s image yet again. She got a menial job at a hair salon which would never pay her enough to get her and the kids out of her parents’ house, but then heard the mines were hiring women! She lands a job as a miner, is well aware from the beginning that “they don’t want us there,” and soon discovers that her manager is fully against her being employed at the company, especially with a fair work environment, and the male miners subject the handful of female miners to daily humiliation and intimidation using everything from rude comments to fecal matter on the walls. Josey puts up with the harassment for a while because she’s making awesome money, until a threatening incident with a co-worker on an isolated staircase moves her to complain to the company owner, but the hostile manager has gotten there first. In the meantime, Josey’s old boyfriend from high school, the one who saw the teacher rape her but did nothing about it, is now one of her co-workers, and he brings the harassment into the public sphere by telling his wife that he had an affair with Josey, and of course the wife blames Josey, not her husband, and shares the news with an entire hockey game’s worth of townsfolk, who never bother to ask Josey for her side of the story. After that same old boyfriend from high school gets her alone in an underground room and attacks her, Josey gets no support from any of her co-workers, so she promptly quits her job and asks Woody Harrelson’s character to represent her in a lawsuit.
The messages are clear, and they are worth articulating: that women cannot always depend on men to take care of them, that the mining culture and economic insecurity of the time created a dangerously misogynistic environment which made women unfairly vulnerable, and there was no structure in place to make sure the women could support themselves without suffering violence. These are all valid points, and you’re left to wonder why the movie feels like it has to lay it on so thick to make sure you get the message. The harassment is all based on events that really happened, but there was no Josey Aimes; her real-life counterpart was Lois Jenson, who does appear in the special features, so why couldn’t they just make a movie about Lois Jenson? Did they not trust their audience to sympathize with a woman who was perhaps not quite as uniformly, fractally mistreated as their fictional heroine who never met a man who didn’t abuse her? Up until she met her lawyer, of course.
The movie is respectable in that it shows that misogyny is not all the work of men; the courtroom shows a female lawyer deploying the “nuts and sluts” defense while a male lawyer defends a female plaintiff from male violence. Aimes’s female co-workers, meanwhile, are part of the problem in that they’re so afraid of losing their jobs, or taking even further abuse, that they side with the company in calling Josey a liar. Then we have Bobby Sharp’s wife who rips into Josey for (supposedly) sleeping with her husband, and the women in town who blame her for failing to stay married to a wifebeater, and all the people who never once consider that her getting pregnant at 16 was not within her control. Her father’s attitude for most of the movie is offensive, but there’s also something refreshing about a movie that doesn’t take the position that the only man a woman can trust is her daddy. (And it’s sufficiently appalling that, when her father finally stands up for her in front of the steelworkers’ union, you’ll probably forgive the corniness of the scene.) Even so, there are so few decent men shown in the movie that you’d probably forgive Josey if she admitted that she despises men on principle. The real women interviewed in the special features say it wasn’t all the men at the mines who harassed them, it was just a handful, but the movie makes it look like the male miners are so busy being misogynistic assholes that the female miners have to do all the actual mining work. It finally shows a couple of guys coming to a young woman’s aid when several other men commit a disgusting act of violence on her, but they’re still outnumbered. There aren’t very many men in this movie who don’t treat women like worthless bitches who need to be kept in their place; the judge is only moderately human, and even Josey’s 13-year-old son buys into the slut-shaming against his mother. If the real women who sued the mining company really did endure all those injustices in their real lives, then why did the movie have to invent women who didn’t exist?
My issues with the above two movies were that they were based on true stories but didn’t trust their audiences to appreciate their heroines without distorting reality. Slumdog Millionaire, meanwhile, doesn’t pretend to tell a true story, but it’s set in a place that does exist in real life, and my annoyance with the movie is perhaps not really an annoyance so much as an observation of an unpleasant reality. If Danny Boyle is trying to make us want to visit India, he’s going about it in entirely the wrong way.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, mind you; I enjoyed My Life in Ruins, for example, and I have no respect for NYT’s complaint that it won’t bring any additional tourism to Greece. In fact I enjoyed that movie partly because it felt free to ridicule its setting. I don’t think a movie about an exotic locale should be expected to make the locale look inviting. If the locale is a shithole, then the movie should not be punished for portraying a shithole. With that in mind, I don’t know whether it’s a criticism or a compliment to Danny Boyle that he makes Mumbai look like a dystopian alternate universe. The rest of India doesn’t fare much better; there are beautiful things to see, but even at the supposedly tourist-ready places, there are destitute street children who are not above stealing your shoes. The foreign tourists in the movie are portrayed favorably; they all come across as admirably pleasant, curious, open-minded people, but that’s part of the problem. The message is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good person; if you visit India, prepare to be ripped off. The destitute street children are not the cause of the problem, of course; the problem is the vastly disorganized, chaotic, sectarian, uncaring environment of India. It doesn’t matter if you’re a helpless orphaned child: your moral worth is exactly equal to your income, and your credibility flows directly from your education and occupation. Earn your keep or die, unless you’re a chai wallah, in which case if you do well, you must have cheated. If this is how life really is in the slums of Mumbai, then I won’t fault Boyle for showing it as such, but either way, the impression is: IF YOU ARE NOT INDIAN, DO NOT SET FOOT IN INDIA. And if you are Indian, start looking for the next boat out.