Movies about writers tend to be pretty dull, because unless you’re sitting inside our skulls, what writers do is pretty dull. We stare at blank paper or screens, mutter to ourselves a lot, pace mindlessly and drink way too much (coffee and otherwise). Even writers with exciting lives don’t always make exciting films. For example, the atrocious In Love and War wants us to believe that dewey Chris O’Donnell could grow up to be Ernest Hemingway; I suspect just one of Hemingway’s sperm could kick Chris O’Donnell’s ass. But I digress.
I actually want to praise a wonderful movie from 2005 called Winter Passing. Written and directed by Adam Rapp, it tells of a New York actress faced with the chance to sell love letters from her father (a J.D. Salinger-like recluse) to her mother (a recent suicide). This entails visiting her old home in Michigan, and reopening old family wounds.
So far, so trite. But it’s the execution that makes this film stand out. Thematically it’s about the difficulty of expressing feelings, and because none of the characters are very good at it, the film has a firm sense of reserve. The scenes draw you in: you have to pay attention to subtle changes of expression, slight inflections in words, and the rhythms of body language. There are moments that could be played as full-blown Lifetime Network scream-and-sob fests, but instead are pitched as mild, realistic conversations true to the characters having them.
The cast gets it exactly right. Zooey Deschanel, whose minimal style has been problematic in a lot of her roles (i.e., SciFi’s miniseries Tin Man), is spot-on as the daughter who, it’s implied, has become an actress because she can express none of her own emotions. Ed Harris plays her father not as a egocentric tyrant but a kind-hearted yet befuddled man overwhelmed by his life. Even Will Ferrell backs his energy way down as one of Harris’ housemates, a sad outcast looking for purpose.
I know it sounds like a downer, but Winter Passing is not at all depressing. Nor is it a cheesy “love conquers all,” hugs-and-lessons fest. The characters don’t overcome their adversity, they just make small steps forward, and it’s that understatement that makes this so affecting.
For example, Deschanel has nursed a long-held grudge because her parents only came to see her perform once, in high school. A lesser film would have Harris in the front row on opening night of her next play, smiling with paternal pride as the music swells triumphantly. But instead, here he sends her an inscribed copy of one of his books, all he’s emotionally capable of doing. And she understands this, and accepts it as intended.
I think the central dilemma, the inability to really connect with other people (especially family), is something a lot of writers face. The distance between our inspiration and the effect we have on our audience is considerable compared to the more immediate arts. Musicians can play their song for you in three minutes; a painter’s finished product can be taken in at a glance. It takes a long time to write a book, and a long time to read one. So there’s often quite a lag between the reaching, and the touching.