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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

MOTIFS IN CINEMA: Surrogate Families in 2013 Films



Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea –Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

There's a moment in Saving Mr. Banks when P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), famed author of the Mary Poppins book series, reveals just how much the time-honored children's story and characters mean to her. "They are like family," she reluctantly admits. It's a rare moment of vulnerability from the cantankerous writer,  positively beside herself over Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) plans for a film adaptation. Once she  relinquishes her anger, we can see how she had been completely overwhelmed by the burden of autonomy she had been carrying all these years. But what is most interesting about this admission is how it highlighted a theme in last year's film; the power that can come from having a familial love for something or someone who is not your actual family.

We've seen how this motif influenced other 2013 films, including The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Michael Starrbury's Independent Spirit Award-nominated screenplay shows how two young boys discover an unlikely friendship through shared loss and utter tragedy. When 13-year-old Mister (Skylan Brooks) is abandoned by his addict mother (Jennifer Hudson) and left to fend for himself, it is only his once reluctant solidarity with Pete (Ethan Dizon), a similarly lost child in the neighborhood, that maintains his determined spirits and keeps him from tumbling into an irrevocable despair. Though the two are united under dire circumstances, it ultimately leads them to a better place emotionally as they come out stronger on the other side. They lean on each other when their parental figures--and the system--fail them and they become the family they never got to have before. In the process, Mister comes to terms with his own mortality and stunted adolescence.

On the other hand, we saw films that used this concept as a crutch for antagonists to further propel their motives. For instance, Blue Caprice, which tells the real-life story of notorious Washington D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad (played by Isaiah Washington), shows how he lured Lee (Tequan Richmond), a neglected 17-year-old into his revenge-fueled massacre. Under the guise that he is the father figure Lee doesn't have, John manipulates Lee into thinking he needs him, that the teen's maturity and emotional stability depends on it. It is an intentional and horrifying play that eventually serves as the demise of both man and teen.

Similarly, in Blancanieves a young girl is forced to live with her malevolent stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), after her father is bound to a wheelchair and unable to care for her. Locked in a dark castle and doomed to spend the rest of her days as a servant for her acquired guardian, the Snow White-inspired Carmen (Macarena García) spins out of Encarna's twisted web using her own brand of shrewdness and allure, becoming her own heroine in the process. Despite Encarna's caustic hold on Carmen, which allows her to be both sole provider and number one nemesis, the adolescent eventually takes charge of her own destiny and finds a new kind of family that cares for her in a way she hadn't experienced in too long.

These stories are true testaments on how even the hope, fear or comfort of a familial figure can impact our outlook, or send us sprawling backward down a path we least expect it.

Motifs in Cinema is an annual blogathon led by Encore's World of Film that explores common themes presented in a year's worth of film. For more information on the list of themes and participating blogs, click here

5 comments:

Andrew K. said...

This is a rather deft twist on the family motif, Candice!

BLUE CAPRICE is one of the 2013 films I missed I want to catch up on, but I like how you point out that even families that aren't biological or simply constructs of our own can affect, influence (and destroy) just like "real" ones.

Candice Frederick said...

@Andrew K Thanks! I had another angle in mind, but I thought this was an interesting--and less talked about--theme in regards to family relationships.

Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! I actually didn't see any of these films you listed, but I have Mister and Pete in my Netflix queue. I can't wait to watch and see these motifs play out!

Courtney Small said...

While I think Blue Caprice offered one of the most interesting takes on the surrogate family structure, I loved that you included Blancanieves in the piece. Though films like 12 O'Clock Boys, saw in 2013 but officially opened this year, immediately popped to my mind; some how I had forgotten how well Blancanieves fit this theme.

I will be sure to keep this piece in mind when checking out both The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete and Saving Mr. Banks.

Nick Prigge said...

I second Andrew! I love the twist on the motif. That's good stuff. And I love that you found something to love Saving Mr. Banks. That moment you mention hit me too.

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