Todd Solondz poignantly sums up the emotional state of a war torn nation in his latest film Life During Wartime, a sequel to the director's Happiness which revisits the same cast of characters, played here by different actors - a brilliant device that aptly sumps up the degree to which the world has changed since 1998. Life During Wartime is the most observant and relevant American movie of the year, a film that dares to suggest that you forgive and attempt to understand those who have wronged you - a notion that, in the years following 9/11, is even more foreign to popular consensus than the Middle Eastern nations that our media spends so much time demonizing. Empathy is dying, and Life During Wartime is a moving, challenging attempt to resuscitate it.
Seeing my home as a warzone on September 11, 2001 was a key moment in my life that awakened me to a world beyond my day to day existence as an adolescent in New Jersey. One image that sticks out in my mind is seeing people in the Middle East celebrating the attacks on the news, realizing that there are people out there in the world who hate us very much, and then came the more unsettling notion that perhaps they have good reason to. It was a true revelation, and it's a moment in time that I keep going back to as the true formation of my political worldview. I bring this up because I feel a similar shift has occurred within the films of Todd Solondz since September 11th; his first few features (all of which I at least admire) are more or less a portrait of New Jersey as Hell on Earth (The Garden State is, for whatever reason, indie cinema's favorite go-to hellhole), analyzing the manner in which a largely upper-middle class society is, in its own way, as bourgeois as the upper class elites. He criticizes, at times brutally, middle class entitlement, while also attempting to reveal the darker side of humanity, which he argues is not as sequestered as we would like to believe. However, in his last two features, instead of bitterly highlighting America's dark side he has challenged his audience to sympathize with characters society says we should hate - and though I don't think this shift is entirely due to 9/11, the attack has left a clear mark on his subsequent work.
I was not a fan of Happiness, perhaps Todd Solondz's most well known film, which I found to be cruel and condescending towards virtually all of its main characters for the purpose of making a pedophile and rapist (here played by Ciaran Hinds, giving what may be the best performance of the year thus far) the most sympathetic character in the film's warped ensemble. Happiness is centered around a trio of sisters, and his portrait of them - Joy, a free spirit whose work is reforming criminals; Trish, whose highest aspiration is being a middle class wife and mom; Helen, who is a prototypical suffering writer - is harsh and critical to the point that it comes off as resentment. He is contemptuous of Joy's desire to heal the world, even playing the fact that she is drawn to a pervert (who she winds up marrying, the beginning of Life During Wartime reveals) toward the end of the film as a cruel joke; he is contemptuous of Trish's desire for normalcy, and he punishes her for this desire for complacency by making her seemingly normal husband a pedophile; and he is contemptuous of Helen's sanctimonious bohemian suffering, painting her as ultimately shallow in spite of her lofty artistic aspirations.
However, this resentment has given way to a profound understanding in Life During Wartime - what was cruelly ironic in Happiness is cast in a tragic light here, and the opening scene, which depicts Joy and her husband Allen out to dinner to celebrate their anniversary, establishes this. It is an echoing of the opening scene of Happiness (which featured Jon Lovitz in one of the most memorable cameo roles I've ever seen, playing Joy's boyfriend Andy), right down to the detail of Allen giving Joy an ashtray identical to the one that Andy gave her in the opening of Happiness. This sets the stage for the theme of history repeating itself - as Joy sings in the titular song later in the film, "We made a mistake/It's just like Vietnam". The players change, but the game stays the same.
And though he has a different face all these years later, Allen is the same as he was in Happiness (when he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) - still a pervert, still using drugs, still making elicit phone calls to strangers - and this revelation (if it can even be classified as such) is what prompts Joy to spend some time apart from her husband, and she travels to Florida to be with her divorced mother and her sister Trish. The film makes constant visual parallels between Israel and Florida, depicting The Sunshine State as a haven for spirituality, specifically Judaism. In spite of attempting to escape her problems, Joy is still haunted by the past - she walks out of her bed one night and goes to a restaurant where she is haunted by a vision of Andy (here played by Paul Ruebens, in a stunning and unforgettable channeling of Lovitz's performance in Happiness), whose suicide she blames herself for. Though the fact that she can't heal these broken spirits is a cause of endless distress for her, she should have realized long ago that people never change, no matter how much we want for them to and no matter how hard we try. She brings this anguish on herself.
When we catch up with Trish, she is in the midst of finding romance (with Welcome to the Dollhouse's Harvey Weiner, making Solondz's filmic world a true universe of its own) for the first time since her marriage to Bill the pedophile, and when we first see her she is in the ecstasy of newfound love - and this may be the first time Solondz has allowed his characters true happiness, however fleeting it may be. As Trish sits at lunch with Harvey, she exclaims "You're just so... normal!" with a beaming smile on her face, and it's this same characteristic that Solondz painted as a damning flaw in Happiness. Yet viewing this statement in context with the ordeal she suffered through in the previous film, who can blame her for this desire for normalcy, the only thing in life she has ever aspired to? These first two sequences with Trish and Joy rhyme one another, showing them both in restaurants attempting to bury the scars of the past and, at the very least, appear normal.
Shortly after this we are introduced to (or reacquainted with) Trish's son Timmy, who is on the verge of his Bar Mitzvah and, in his mind at least, becoming a man. Solondz's richest portrayals are often of children, as he perfectly captures feeling as though your future is a void, and living in a time when the future of the world is equally uncertain only serves to compound that anxiety. Timmy Maplewood may be Solondz's greatest achievement yet, because as he is living a relatively carefree, privileged existence in his Florida home, a classmate discovers the truth about his father (whom he thought was dead most of his life) on the internet - and this discovery, naturally, creates an identity crisis in this young man. He runs home, tears streaming down his face, confronting his mother with what he's learned at school - was dad really a pedophile? If so, what am I? He desperately cries out "I don't want to be a faggot!" - a perceptive if unsubtle observation on the way youth, and our culture in general, demonizes homosexuality - as though being gay and wanting to fuck children of any gender are even remotely comparable, and his mother 'reassures' him that he is not a faggot, though she's probably trying to convince herself as much as she is trying to convince Timmy.
As this is happening, Bill is being released from prison, and Ciaran Hinds beautifully captures the essence of a broken man attempting to re-enter society in a largely wordless performance. He expresses this profound sadness through body language: through his eyes, through facial expressions, through the most subtle of gestures. We are immediately reminded of Bill's heinous crime (if we could ever forget it), when he makes eye contact with a child on the street, and forces himself to walk right passed him, attempting to fight desires that he knows are wrong. He checks into a hotel and looks over his wallet that he last saw over a decade ago, and this detail helps reinforce the theme of living in a world that has changed so radically - the last time he saw his driver's license the World Trade Center was still standing. There were still levees in New Orleans. A black man had never been President. We were not engaged in any large scale wars. The economy was good. It was, if not a simpler time, certainly a time when the United States was more dissociated from the problems of the world - and it was this idyllic bubble that Solondz's early films were such scathing critiques of. Though he has his freedom back, Bill is thrust into a world he no longer understands, if he ever understood it at all; a world that he has no place in.
Bill tracks down his family and breaks into their Florida home when no one is there, observing details of the life that has passed him by while he was rotting away in a jail cell. He looks at the pictures on the walls of the Maplewood's Florida home not as though they are family, but as though they are strangers, which they may as well be (and, again, the recasting reinforces this sentiment). This life that could have been literally haunts Bill - he has a recurring dream in which Timmy is the central figure, a simultaneously beautiful and troubling visualization of Bill's tormented psyche. He walks up the stairs to his son Billy's room - Billy was an adolescent during the events of Happiness - and he walks into the bedroom of your typical college man: messy, hemp and music posters on the wall and, most importantly, a college calendar on the wall - Bill's next destination.
Next, we catch up with Joy, who got sick of her mother and decided instead to fly out to Los Angeles to visit her estranged sister, Helen. Though the portrait of all the other characters from Happiness is considerably more nuanced and sympathetic in this picture, Solondz still has little use for Helen, who is now living an unhappy life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Though she lives in a mansion littered with awards, she is still a brooding negativist, and in a brilliantly ironic image, she laments what a terrible, war torn world we live in while sitting beside her swimming pool and while her personal chef prepares her dinner behind her. This is certainly an attack on the Hollywood establishment that Solondz remains on the outskirts of (he is a true independent), criticizing the fact that they pander to leftist sentiments while living an insulated and privileged existence - and Solondz hammers this point home when he frames Helen against a portrait of an Israeli war tank in her living room. While Helen is moralistically screaming about how "We are still a country at war!", as though we could forget, Joy is writing a song that attempts to sum up what it really means to be a country at war: a time to forgive, a time to forget - a time to understand those that have been labeled our enemies.
Solondz challenges the notion of forgiveness and empathy by asking us to understand perhaps the most warped of human beings: a pedophile. During a dinner when Timmy and Trish's other children finally meet Harvey, they see Timmy standing outside, looking contemplative and distressed. Trish urges Harvey to talk to him, as Timmy is clearly bothered by something - he's writing his Bar Mitzvah speech on the concept of forgiveness, and this has caused him to seriously consider what it means to forgive and how far you take it. Do you forgive someone who punched you in the face? Does it depend on the reason? How about a pedophile? What if a terrorist bombs your office building - do you forgive him? This line of questioning causes Harvey and Trish to toss out a plethora of Bush-era cliches: terrorists aren't people. They hate our freedom. They hate democracy. They aren't like you and me, and other such insanity that we've been expected to swallow as justification for the nonsensical and heinous wars that the United States is currently involved in. With this challenging, bold sentiment, Solondz connects his portraits of suburbia as hell to a larger political context, thoughtfully contemplating the essence of forgiveness - not just as a buzz word, but the spiritual essence of moving passed the wrongs that you have suffered at the hands of others.
This is the point in the film where Trish's overzealousness with respect to pedophilia takes on a tragic ramification - it manages to ruin a relationship of hers for a second time. Timmy requests a few words with Harvey in private, like he is the over protective father making sure this would-be suitor is good enough for his daughter. Since his father hasn't been around and his brother has been off at college, Timmy has viewed himself as the "man of the house" and acts accordingly. Timmy asks Havey, point blank, if he's ever had sex with a boy - and Harvey realizes that this is just a wounded, confused boy who has lacked a father figure most of his life, and goes to give him a simple hug. He remembers his mothers oft-repeated warning - that if a man ever touches him, you scream - and screams at the top of his lungs. When Trish barges into her son's room, the fate of Harvey and Trish is implicit - it's simply not meant to be. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in, where we're so afraid that someone is a child molester or rapist that even the most innocuous of contact between adult and child is expressly forbidden. Sometimes all a child needs is a hug.
The film brings us to Billy's college, where he and a group of friends are having a contest: who has the most fucked up family? Billy refuses to participate, for obvious reasons, and goes to his dorm room to be by himself, when he hears a knock at the door. He is understandably shocked when he opens the door to find his father, who inhales some scattered candy that Billy has littered on his bedside table and chugs a bottle of water that Billy offers to him. He came for one reason, and one reason only: to make sure that Billy didn't turn out like him, as he can't live with even the vaguest suspicion that his son may have also become a pedophile. Bill hates himself for who he is, has tried to cure himself, has tried taking medication, "Nothing works", he dejectedly tells his son, and this sequence - a tragic family reunion that reopens the deep wounds of the past in a direct, straightforward manner - is likely amongst the most heartbreaking moments you are going to see in a movie this year. Solondz captures this moment in all its awkwardness and sadness without resorting to sentimentality or cliche. As he walks out the door, he tells his son to "Keep pretending, like before", and Billy pleads with him to stay - in this instance, Billy has ceased to see him as the pedophile who fucked up his family and his life and sees him as only his father. As quickly as he came, he is gone - like a ghost (the past haunting the characters - literally and figuratively - is a recurring motif).
Timmy's Bar Mitzvah serves as the film's climax, which brings all the central characters together. Though this is nothing more than a party for all the other people attending (Solondz hilariously sums this up with a brilliant use of a techno remix of "Hava Nagila"), Timmy views the Bar Mitzvah as a spiritual experience, a genuine morphing of child into adult, and he leaves his own reception to go find Harvey and apologize for his terrible mistake. Instead he finds his son Mark (who, in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes, essentially serves as the mouthpiece for Solondz's worldview), begins to sob, and apologizes profusely for his terrible mistake - he was, after all, still a child; he didn't know. Even if Harvey is a pedophile (which Mark assures him he's not), Timmy reasons, that doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to get married and live a happy life. However, the accusations of pedophilia have deeply wounded Harvey, and he is moving to Israel - a Jew escaping persecution. In this sequence, Timmy is simultaneously more an adult and more a child than he has been in the entire film to this point, at once a human being who has come to truly grasp the concept of forgiveness (coming to understand it through the spiritual experience of his Bar Mitzvah), and a child simply yearning for his father, who he fears is now dead, "for real this time". As Timmy declares "I just want my father", the ghost of Bill Maplewood walks in the background behind him, disappearing into eternity - a moment that, I must confess, devastated me as few moments in any movie have. Solondz simultaneously makes you hate and love Bill Maplewood, making him an impenetrable yet entirely sympathetic character. The evil other - the type of person that the media so often oversimplifies as a 'monster' - has been so powerfully humanized that his death is truly tragic, and only Solondz could create these complicated, almost contradictory feelings. Solondz makes you understand (if not forgive) a person who has committed amongst the most unfathomable atrocities imaginable, and Solondz seems to be suggesting that if we can understand him, then we can understand anyone.
In the two features he has made since 9/11, Solondz has evolved from a perceptive (if somewhat snarky), sharply critical observer of American society to one of the most sensitive artists currently working in the United States. His notions of forgiveness in a time of terrorism, war, and recession are truly daring, especially when most American entertainments pander to our biases and hatred of one another - I struggle to name another American film where a pedophile is anything other than a villain, a purely evil character whose purpose to reinforce a black and white view of the world (even at its worst, Solondz's worldview is certainly never black and white). Life During Wartime is the most beautiful prayer for peace since Spielberg's Munich, and Solondz, like Spielberg, challenges us to rethink, reflect, and forgive - and it's a challenge I'm not sure we're up to.