Three sisters: Joy, a flighty hippy chick; Trish, a suburban mother; and Helen, a successful screenwriter. The issue at stake: The ability to forgive and forget. For Joy, the choice is simple. She works with ex-cons, helping them to return to society. She’s even married to an ex-con, a gang member who is trying hard to go straight but (particularly on Sundays) relapses back to his old life. Despite the tutting condemnations of mother and sisters, Joy clearly has compassion. Not so for Trish, however.
We first meet Trish (Alison Janney, outstanding and award-worthy) in the company of an older man (the great Michael Lerner) having dinner together. Love is in the air. When she gets home she tells her thirteen year old son in no uncertain terms what this man does to her emotionally and sexually. It is the first of many darkly comedic scenes. The son, Timmy, believes his father to be dead, and misses him terribly. However, Bill, the father, is not dead at all, but in jail as a convicted pedophile. Trish cannot forgive, and most certainly cannot forget. Pretty much everybody, at some point, asks for forgiveness in this movie. The answers vary.
Writer/director Todd Solondz first introduced us to this family in 1998’s Happiness, which, like Life During Wartime, involved pedophilia. I will try not to refer to that movie and only concentrate on this second chapter, although the family has now has aged ten years, changed their religion and are now played by completely different actors. Throughout the movie, sexual molestation of a minor is constantly linked to terrorism, thereby bringing to our attention that society deems all crimes worthy of forgiveness bar these two. Solondz bravely questions that mindset by showing us Bill (Ciaran Hinds) as a person rather than a monster. We see him released from jail, picking up a barfly (a hilarious Charlotte Rampling in the movie’s funniest scene), and checking on his eldest son, now in college, to make sure that his tendencies have not been passed down a generation. I can easily imagine certain members of the general public becoming irate at this softening of the crime, but all I can say is that, as a loving parent myself, I was not offended (uncomfortable, yes, but not offended). It would be foolish to think that there are no such people in the world, and it is one of cinema’s duties to report on society. I would have been more offended if the film had trivialized the crime. (Solondz introduces situations that are both funny and challenging. These comedic moments only heightened my sense of unease. British comic Chris Morris once tried the same thing, mixing this evil crime with humor, and the British public (or, at least, the red-tops) were outraged).
Whilst clearly the headline-grabbing section of the movie, there is more than just Trish to be concerned about. Joy (Shirley Henderson, irritating in a Carol Kane sort of way) has left her husband back in New Jersey after one indiscretion too many and reconciles with her family. She is haunted by the suicide of a former friend (Paul Reubens) who visits her in her sleep, lewdly suggesting they reunite. She politely reminds the spectre that they were never together in the first place. The frothy Joy is the knot that ties the family together: She is the only one who meets her mother and her two sisters, but she is the one seemingly most troubled, and yet she is the one with the most forgiveness in her heart.
Life During Wartime is a challenging, emotional and confrontational film, and it would benefit the viewer if Happiness were seen before it. For one, it would prepare the viewer for the juxtaposition of awkward humor and the even more awkward situations, and also it would help to explain certain situations that arise during it (the third sister, for example, and the dead friend). Nonetheless, it is a powerful film — an ‘Important Film’ — the kind that critics rave about and the public shun. It left me questioning my ability to forgive. If a judge rules that a man should serve a certain amount of time for a crime committed, does that mean that once the sentence is completed his slate should be wiped clean? Joy thinks so, Trish doesn’t. Me, I have no idea.