Now playing in wide release, Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette contains one of my favorite scenes to appear in an American movie this year. The title character (Cate Blanchett) has decided to run away from her husband (Billy Crudup) and teenage daughter (Bee Branch) after the latter host an intervention to persuade Bernadette to get psychiatric help. Bernadette needs a place to stay where her husband and daughter won’t look for her, so she chooses the home of a neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who’s been an enemy up to this point in the film. Audrey is surprised by Bernadette’s request, but Bernadette appeals to her sympathy and makes her into an ally. This moment, which plays out quickly and without much dramatic emphasis, reflects an optimistic and kindhearted temperament that I’ve come to expect from Linklater’s films and that is one of the reasons why I find them so valuable. Linklater’s first few features (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) grew out of a deep curiosity about other people; over time, that curiosity has evolved into a Renoiresque sympathy for nearly all his characters.
I’d say that Linklater’s sensibility is hard to come by in contemporary American cinema, but as luck would have it, another kindhearted American movie is opening this Friday: The Peanut Butter Falcon, the directorial debut of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. That movie concerns the friendship between a teenage boy with Down syndrome and a fisherman who’s hit the road after burning down some rivals’ equipment. They meet on the road; the boy is headed to North Carolina to look for his hero, a semi-pro wrestler from the 90s, while the fisherman is planning to cool his heels in Florida. I found it implausible that these two would end up as best friends, let alone travel companions, but Nilson and Schwartz generate such a sincere like for their characters that I was willing to go along with their wish-fulfillment fantasy, which I’d much rather consider than I would another group of superheroes saving the world from destruction.
At a time when the president of our country denigrates daily the notion of kindness in his words and actions, I welcome depictions of kindness in movies as reminders of the good of which other people are capable. Well, not all depictions—the premise of people doing well by one another can be easily exploited for cheap sentiment, and no one really needs that. I mean the movies that implicitly ask the audience to consider what it means to act helpfully or with compassion (it usually involves some sort of sacrifice)—one can’t get enough of movies like these, as they challenge us in a most constructive fashion. Some of these films, like Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950), ponder the issue through the moral conflicts that the hero undergoes, while others, like the late-period family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu or certain documentaries by Frederick Wiseman, encourage a kindhearted approach to their subjects by asking viewers to look at the subjects patiently and considerately in an effort to better understand who they are.
In two weeks I’m going to start a new job as a special education teacher for Chicago Public Schools. (I intend to continue writing.) I’ll admit that cinema—specifically the kind of cinema I’ve tried to describe here—played some part in this career decision. Typically a collaborative medium in how it’s made, distributed, and exhibited, cinema at its best exhorts us to engage more deeply with the world. Andrei Tarkovsky once said he hoped his movies would make people want to do good after having experienced them. That’s a bold claim (and characteristic of Tarkovsky), but really all movies have this potential. They can transmit other perspectives and propose new ways of looking at the world—in short, they can make us more curious about other people and more patient in general. I’m excited by the challenges of special education for many of the same reasons. Below are capsule reviews from the Reader archives of five films that exemplify a certain cinema of kindness, whether in the behavior of their subjects or in the worldview they communicate through their filmmaking.
Stars in My Crown This somber black-and-white drama (1950) about a small-town preacher (Joel McCrea) in the postbellum south, narrated by the boy he raised (Dean Stockwell), is one of the most neglected films in the history of cinema as well as Jacques Tourneur’s favorite among his own pictures. (Best known for Cat People and Out of the Past, Tourneur often seemed to thrive in obscurity, and by agreeing to direct this picture at MGM for practically nothing he reportedly sabotaged his own career.) A view of the American heartland that’s emotionally engaged but still charged with darkness (a typhoid epidemic and a near lynching are among its key episodes), it recalls some of John Ford’s best work in its complex perception of goodness, and I can’t think of many films that convey a particular community with more pungency. Margaret Fitts adapted a novel by Joe David Brown; with Ellen Drew, James Mitchell, Juano Hernandez, Amanda Blake, Louis Stone, and Alan Hale. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Good Morning (aka Ohayo) Perhaps the most delightful of Yasujiro Ozu’s late comedies (1959), this very loose remake of his earlier I Was Born, But . . . (1932) pivots around the rebellion of two brothers whose father refuses to buy a TV set. The layered compositions of the suburban topography are extraordinary, as are the intricate interweavings of the various characters and miniplots. The title is Japanese for “good morning,” and the film’s profound and gentle depiction of social exchanges extends to the farting games of schoolboys. The color photography is vibrant and exquisite. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Blind This documentary about the Alabama School for the Blind—part of a 1986 tetralogy of films about young people with physical disabilities—is not just Frederick Wiseman’s warmest movie but one of the most heartening depictions of education in cinema. For most of the first hour Wiseman concentrates on the school’s kindergarten class, where several young students take their literal first steps towards navigating life on their own. Shooting in remarkable proximity to the children, Wiseman conveys their astonishment at gaining newfound awareness of the world at large. The epiphanic wonder of these scenes carries over to the remainder of the film, as Wiseman shifts his focus to administrators and older students, most of whom come off as heroically patient in how they respond to challenges of work and school. —Ben Sachs
Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle Four tales about Reinette (Joëlle Miquel), a country girl who paints and operates according to certain principles, and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde), her less rigorous friend from the city; they meet in the country in the first episode and share an apartment in Paris during the remaining three. This feature was shot in 16-millimeter by Eric Rohmer in 1986, shortly before he completed Summer in the same format and with the same method of letting his leading actors improvise dialogue rather than strictly following scripts. Not part of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” series, and deliberately light and nonambitious (very little of consequence occurs in any of the tales), this nevertheless shows the filmmaker at nearly peak form—sharply attentive to the sights and sounds of country and city alike and to the temperamental differences between his two heroines. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
A Simple Life Ann Hui (Boat People) is often cited as one of the most important Hong Kong directors of her generation and one of east Asia’s most important female directors, period. This 2011 drama—about a single man in his 50s (Andy Lau) who takes filial responsibility for his family’s aging maid (Deannie Ip) after she suffers a stroke—is the sort of humanist filmmaking, like Satyajit Ray’s, that seems to take shape all on its own; you feel not that you’re being told a story but that you’re sharing time with the characters. Given the subtlety of this approach and the familiarity of the premise, one might easily overlook the movie’s troubling undercurrent—what it manages to suggest about how people live and die in contemporary society is hardly uplifting. —Ben Sachs v