By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
THE news is that a trend continues: An increasing number of responsible films are exposing and exploring problems of domestic abuse and family troubles.
The latest examples are "Ladybird Ladybird," an English movie now opening in American theaters after debuting at the New York Film Festival, and "Heavenly Creatures," a New Zealand drama due on United States screens next month.
The bad news is that Hollywood isn't playing much part in this activity. In the main, American filmmakers take a superficial view of family, exploiting domestic distress for its melodramatic value but generally failing to probe the causes and consequences of abusive behaviors in the home.
It may be argued that fuzziness and fantasy have always been Hollywood's stock in trade, and they are to be expected even where serious subjects are concerned. While this is true, it's an attitude that gives us wish-fulfillment fabrications that suggest social and historical forces will slip obediently into line if we just think positively.
It's worth noting that "Heavenly Creatures" contains more vivid fantasies than any scene in "Forrest Gump," yet manages to examine key aspects of modern-day malaise with an honesty that puts Gumpishness to shame.
"Ladybird Ladybird" is the most urgently relevant to current social issues. This is especially true after the recent elections in the US, which could lead to new attitudes regarding government's role in helping disadvantaged people.
Based on actual events, "Ladybird Ladybird" centers on a woman named Maggie who was the victim of physical and psychological abuse during childhood, and has re-created this pattern by gravitating toward abusive men in her adult life.
Now the mother of four children, she is forced to put all of them into foster care after one is injured in a household accident caused partly by her own negligence. She wants desperately to regain custody of the youngsters, but finds herself thwarted by a number of factors. These range from her continuing poverty to an uncontainable rage that erupts at undiplomatic moments, such as during interviews with social workers.
Matters are complicated further by Jorge, the new man in her life - a gentle and compassionate fellow in all respects, but also an illegal Paraguayan immigrant.
"Ladybird Ladybird" tackles this troubling tale with documentary-style realism, showing profound sympathy with the protagonists while dispassionately revealing the enormous divide that exists between ideals of harmonious family life, on one hand, and a network of inadequate social policies, on the other.
Watching the film is like being on an emotional roller coaster, and the ride becomes almost overwhelming when Maggie's desperation reaches such heights that she begins having new babies in order to regain the active motherhood that society has taken away from her. …