A Movie In Which Not Much Happens
Over in Sunday!, Jaybird complains that the longform trailer for the low budget horror movie Don’t Breathe gives away the twist ending. He favorably cites young adult favorite R.L. Stein’s observation that every story has three parts “The begging, the middle, and the twist.” I don’t think this is true and when I think about the best movie I saw this year, I wonder if it even has a story by American conventions of the word at all.
Kore’eda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister came to arthouses across the United States this summer. The movie was released in Japan in 2015 and based on a manga series titled “Seasidetown Diary.” The manga has been running in Japan since 2007.
The plot of the movie is simple. Three sisters at various stages in their twenties live in a big, old house in lower-middle class seaside town. The kind of place known for commercial fishing, not tourism and beaches. The sisters were abandoned by their kind but ineffectual father when they were young. Their equally ineffectual mother left a year or two after that. The sisters have settled into a bunch of dead-end jobs or jobs that involve the dying. The eldest and most serious works on the Hospice floor of the local hospital as a nurse. The middle sister works at a bank and helps restructure the debt loads for struggling businesses. The youngest works at a small sporting good store that seemingly has two employees, herself and her former mountain climber boss.
The sisters discover that they have a much younger half-sister when they receive news about their dad’s death. Somewhat impulsively, they invite their little sister to move in with them and she accepts.
The rest of the movies is an impressionistic, episodic seeming bunch of episodes from the year as everyone gets acclimated to the new situation. Major events happen but they happen in ways that are much more subtle than any American film (including an indie film) would let them be. Loved-ones gets sick and die. The ne’er-do-well mother comes back for a family gathering and brings up selling the house and then is quickly told to shelve the plan, the mom goes away again. I think any American movie would handle these issues with maximum drama and stretched out the emotions. In Our Little Sister, they are handled like so much of life and the events unfurl as whispers, not bangs.
Over on the daily links, we are discussing whether there is a difference between literary fiction and genre fiction and what kind of person is drawn to each. Maybe one idea is that a fan of something literary (film or novels) has the patience for art that seems rather low-stakes. The joys of Our Little Sister don’t come from explosions or high-tension/stakes. The joys come from seeing how people develop and grow in real time. A year passes, the weather grows colder and then warmer, events large and small happen, and the world passes by and gets older before you realize what happens.
I don’t see any reason why a story whether it be a novel or a film needs to have a big twist. Life rarely has big twists. We are now in September. January feels like it was only yesterday. There were a lot of big events this year, not all of them good, but they happened and ended rather quickly like the big events in Our Little Sister.
The audiences for Our Little Sister are not big and as seems typical with these kinds of movies, I was the youngest person in the theater by about 25-30 years. Maybe more. Do people not like movies like Our Little Sister because they rely on emotion and personal growth instead of plot? Are we this addicted to the blockbuster?
The 2016 summer season of blockbusters was an economic disaster for Hollywood. Unfortunately for me, I don’t think Hollywood will look towards Our Little Sister as the answer. Though it probably couldn’t hurt to try.