Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Stories of Family and Friendship

In contrast to the movies which immerse us into a violent world, an immersion we somehow vicariously, but safely, enjoy, there are other films which seem to celebrate the pleasures of friendship and family, and do so without overly sentimentalizing either.


Two men who seem to do this consistently are Tom McCarthy and Peter Hedges. Hedges wrote the screenplay for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy and wrote and directed Pieces of April, and the recent Dan in Real Life. McCarthy has but two movies to his credit (though he has acted in many): The Station Agent and The Visitor. All of these movies are worth watching.


The question here is not whether we should or should not watch these, the question is not whether we should or should not enjoy what we see in them. The question is this: what do these movies, all exploring the lives of men or women in some measure alienated from family and friendship, tell us about the world in which we live and the longings that are found there?

Pieces of April is worthy of note here because it focuses upon a prodigal daughter reaching out to her estranged and highly dysfunctional family through her preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner. Watch it this week. You will be touched, not only by the urge toward family reconciliation, but as well by the beautiful picture of community which is displayed. Dan in Real Life is a rare film that sets the struggles of its main character in the context of a healthy, functioning, strong family, and it is that family that surrounds the character in his point of need.

The Station Agent is an odd little film (oddly, Patricia Clarkson is in both this movie and Pieces of April) about several rather odd characters who find friendship, and through friendship find themselves reconciled with their lives and with others around them.

The Visitor is the most recent of these films, and is a bit heavy in its full frontal (and tilted) consideration of America’s immigration dilemma. It, like the others, takes a man who is by life battered and bored and reintegrates him into real life through friendship.

None of these movies were box office smashes, but all are wonderful stories. And each reminds me why I enjoy watching movies.

But if they at all reveal a cultural longing for relationship and reconciliation, we can perhaps judge that the efforts the church makes to both exist as a real community and to as well facilitate community where we live are well worth the effort, though immediate measurable results are not visible.

I’d love to hear what others think.

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[Note 1: Both Pieces of April and The Station Agent have some scenes of drug use. As well, Pieces of April includes some unsettling pictures of, well, suffice it to say that a character is suffering from breast cancer. Further be warned that Pieces of April requires watching within reach of a box of Kleenex. You have been warned.]

[Note 2: Before you conclude that my movie watching habits have been rescued, redeemed, and focused in a more wholesome direction, you should know that next in our queue is Hellboy II. And of course, before you think me lost forever in the other direction, you should watch and ponder Hellboy I, a film in which the main character is thrown a cross necklace which burns the mark of the cross into his hand. The one who throws it to him says as the camera focuses upon the mark of the cross, “Remember who you are. This was given to you by your father.” Based upon the strength of that image and reminder Hellboy regains the capacity to do the right thing. Very interesting.]

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3 Comments

  1. Amy

    Randy,I’ve heard more positive response about Hellboy II than I could have anticipated. It looks incredibly ridiculous, but now you’re like the billionth person to speak highly of it. I’m going to have to get Net Flix, since we can’t go to the dollar theater anymore.As far as Dan in Real Life-that was a fantastic picture of family. And it was super clean, as far as I remember.Pieces of April was also a quality flick. My favorite of course is Little Miss Sunshine. There is a beautiful picture of family finally coming together.Funny that movies can teach us stuff, eh? Guess that’s one more proof all of us are made in the Image of God.

  2. Rebekah

    Something about April in “Pieces of April” came off as clichĂ© to me, but I think by the end of the movie, I kind of wanted her to stay far, far away from her family, sadly (but it’s been a while since I’ve seen it), as wonderful as it was that she tried to pull them all together.”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is one of my all-time favorite movies, simply because of Leonardo DiCaprio’s awesome acting. I think that he is one of the worlds worst actors (he does pretty much the same character–brash …obnoxious…pretty much what he is in real life…), but he does an amazing job of portraying a troubled autistic and mentally challenged kid. And then the family is an absolute mess, but they are so very loving to each other in the only ways they know how to be.

  3. Randy Greenwald

    Just for the record, I only said that I would WATCH Hellboy II. I’ve not yet commended it. I did find Hellboy I very interesting, and entertaining to boot. LMS certainly brings family together. Of course, you’ve got the whole ‘grandfather-teaching-the-granddaughter-the-stripper-moves’ thing going on, but beyond that, what a great movie. “This song is for my grandpa” “That’s nice. Where is your grandpa right now?” “In the trunk of our van.” And you have to love the suicidal Steve Carell responding to the final judgment at the end, “We can LIVE with that”!And what can you say about DiCapprio in Gilbert Grape? It was an amazing performance. I was not as thrilled with the movie as a whole, but its picture of the centrality of family, no matter the depth of our own individual weaknesses is marvelous. It suggests to me that though Hollywood does not affirm a Christian world view, it cannot help but to reveal a longing that is consistent with it.

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