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Unstrung Heroes

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I first saw the 1995 movie Unstrung Heroes in late 1996, and I liked it a lot. I bought it on DVD a year or two ago, but had been putting off rewatching it because I remembered it being sad (as well as funny) and wanted to wait 'til I was in the right emotional space to be able to cope with it. I finally sat down to watch it two weeks ago.

This time through, I felt like the movie took a while to find its way; I didn't love the first half-hour or so. I liked the remaining two-thirds of the movie an awful lot, but I suspect it wouldn't work as well for a lot of people. I'm gonna talk a little about my reactions to it, but I can't do so without some substantial spoilers, which will commence in the next paragraph. So the spoiler-free version of my review is that the movie is quirky and sweet and occasionally funny and very very sad; but it's possibly problematic in some aspects of its handling of mental illness, and for many people it may cross the line into mawkish or maudlin. But for me it worked well overall.

Major spoilers follow.

It's a movie about a 12(ish)-year-old white American boy named Steven, in the early 1960s, who's a little embarrassed by his father, Sid, a somewhat offbeat inventor (played by John Turturro) who believes that science can solve all problems. Fairly early on, Steven's mother, Selma, played by Andie MacDowell, falls seriously ill, and it's very clear to the audience—but not to Steven and his little sister—that she's got terminal cancer.

For the rest of this entry to make sense, you'll need to know that my mother was diagnosed with terminal leukemia when I was about seven.

I thought that the movie did a really good job of simultaneously showing us both the adults' and the children's point of view. We as adult viewers can understand that the parents are struggling with this awful thing that's going on, but the kids don't understand that; from their point of view, their parents have suddenly gone all weird and inattentive, and they don't know what's going on or why.

(I say “children,” but unfortunately Steven's sister kind of disappears for most of the movie; it's really primarily focused on Steven and the men in the family.)

I especially liked one scene in which Sid (the father) is on the phone with Selma's doctor, trying to convince the doctor to do more tests, and saying that maybe the cancer is survivable, and that the doctor should look at a recent (but obviously irrelevant) medical study Sid has found. All through the phone call, Steven is hanging around and nagging at Sid, trying to get his attention, completely oblivious to his father's anguish and despair.

I think spending more time with kids in recent years made me more aware of this aspect of the movie than I probably was the first time I saw it. This time through, I kept wondering what it was like for my parents to be dealing with two kids all through my mother's illness. My parents didn't make the mistake that Steven's parents do of trying to hide the severity of the problem from us kids; but even so, I imagine that my brother and I were sometimes as clueless and oblivious as most kids are about most adult problems.

Later in the movie, Steven runs away from home to go stay with his two mentally ill uncles, who make Sid look like a paragon of social acceptability. One of the uncles is a hoarder (I had a momentary flashback to the three-foot-high stack of unread newspapers in my grandmother's house, and the twenty-year-old annotated grocery-store receipts she had kept) (not to mention the stacks of paper covering all available surfaces in my own room), and the other one is extremely paranoid, loudly certain of the truth of his conspiracy theories.

But somehow, the two uncles and Steven (who they rename Franz) together find a kind of grace. I dunno, it's probably an overly Hollywoodized portrait of certain kinds of mental illness, but I feel like the movie treats the quirks and eccentricities of all of the characters with a certain respect.

Meanwhile, Selma's illness is getting worse. There's a heartbreaking scene late in the movie when Steven finally talks with her about it. Most of y'all who know me probably know that I cry at movies all the time; sometimes I just get a little misty-eyed, sometimes it's real tears. But that scene suddenly and unexpectedly had me sobbing, crying harder than I've cried about anything in a couple of years. I suspect that it wouldn't have nearly as strong an effect on most viewers, but for me, it was pretty devastating.

I really liked the movie's whole ending sequence. Others may not; in fact, the author of the book that the movie is based on has complained publicly about the ending, which he felt (I'm paraphrasing) was ridiculously Hollywoodized. I see what he's saying, but I nonetheless found it really effective.

But the author has some authority here; it turns out that the book it's based on isn't a novel, it's a memoir. The author's mother had cancer for years when he was a kid; his father was an inventor; he had not two but four uncles who I gather spent time in and out of hospitals. I hear the book is really good; I've bought it but have only barely started reading it.

So, yeah, the movie may be a vast oversentimentalization of what really happened. But for what it's worth, I found it—especially the second half—strongly affecting.

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