A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Never forget that Frosty the Snowman is heretical…

In Actors, drama on April 14, 2009 at 3:36 am

A friend of mine directed a couple of years ago. It was about a woman who through seeing the past decisions in her life, as well as the numerous mistakes – or blindness of them – that other people in her life have made, and how they deal with it. That play was called ‘Savage in Limbo’ and was my introduction to the writing and stories of John Patrick Shanley. Well, not counting JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, which was his previous attempt at writing and directing a movie, and I hadn’t realized until after watching the most recent – and highly praised – project, DOUBT. 

Nominated for numerous awards in 2008, and starring a wonderful cast, DOUBT is the story of two nuns, a priest and their fight over control of a 1960’s era Catholic school, and the very souls of their students and parishioners. A certain event sets off the story that we follow in this movie and leads us through a mysterious, and “open to interpretation” type of ideas. Sister James is a young, some might say naive, teacher at the school. She speaks meekly and defers to the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius. A hard-nosed, and old-fashioned nun, that isn’t open to change in the church and specifically has an axe to grind with a newer priest, Father Flynn. When Sister James catches a couple of glimpses of Father Flynn acting strangely and after a young african-american student had been called to the priest’s office and returns acting odd, himself – she reports these occurrences Sister Aloysius and suspicions and hear-say take flight. 

This movie was a shock that I was not expecting. I was pretty excited to see DOUBT, but I didn’t think that it would be so funny, so touching and really as ambiguous as it played out to me. I’ve read and listened to a number of reviews and commentaries about this movie but I have to say that at this moment I’m still not confident on where I stand on events in the movie. On the other side, I do have opinions on the characters, and despite whether the suspicions were true or not, this movie allows us to see the truth of these people. Sister James and her innocence, and her not being able to figure out for herself where she stands and seeing how she’s used as a pawn between the two major forces leads to her doubt and in the end her unease and peace with herself. Sister Aloysius, so stuck in her tried and true principles, no matter how archaic and malicious her actions were. She dislikes ball-point pens, she dislikes long fingernails, and she especially dislikes Father Flynn. And Father Flynn, who is progressive and open to new things and not just wanting to stick with tradition and in a time when I’m sure that the church was not easily going through this change in trying to become a little more human, and a little more involved in people’s lives as opposed to just the place where the kids go to school and people come on Sunday’s to pray and give their tithing. 

The cast here is absolutely brilliant. The person that I would consider the star of the movie, even though she disappears for a good part of the middle of the movie is Sister James, as played by Amy Adams. This actress has really come into the lime-light over the past few years. After having a bit part in TALLADEGA NIGHTS, and in the more recently released SUNSHINE CLEANING, I see Adams hopefully becoming a much larger star. The one drawback to her becoming a huge star is that she does actually seem to be so much this mousey, innocent woman. And while it might just be an act – so far most of her roles have kind of been the same – getting a little more range from her will really open up roles for her. 

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, gives a wonderful performance. It’s done so well, that it really relies on you – the viewer – to judge what the priest is doing and whether he’s showing guilt, or just shock at allegations pointed at him. As I said, I am still trying to decide what I think, and I have to say that I feel slightly biased against Father Flynn just for the fact of the actor who is portraying him. Hoffman, has for so many roles played the smug, and conceited asshole that that is the attitude that I sort of apply to him, by default. Of course, his acting will correct or realign my prejudices – even when his character is indeed a smug, conceited jerk – and he continually surprises me with the roles he takes on and the performances he gives. 

The other major role that you can’t even pretend isn’t astonishing and just breath-taking in all of it’s spite and seeming evilness – and that, obviously is Sister Aloysius as played by Meryl Streep. Streep, has been actress that I’ve never really paid much attention to. In the few movies I’ve seen that she stars in – the first one I remember, being DEATH BECOMES HER – she is always fantastic. But, in this movie she shines – and not just in the reflecting of light that her pale, and almost luminescent skin. Her “New Yawk” accent is fantastic and for some reason transports me into the era that the movie takes place in, almost more-so than any cut-away to period cars, or referencing to JFK’s assassination. Her character, revealed to us during mass as she stalks the aisle correcting children’s posture and slapping them in the head  to get them to pay attention. Thematically, the villain of the movie, sets her up in what could really have been a one-note character. But, as I said before about how funny this movie was – and most of the humor (even inadvertant, but I’m sure not unwanted) actually comes from her. A perfect line is after being yelled at by Sister James, a lightbulb pops and goes out and without batting an eye, Streep says, “you burned out my light.” Obviously, just reading that doesn’t do it justice, but I can now honestly agree that Streep deserved any and every nomination she received for this movie – and while I’ve still got to see both of Kate Winslet’s highly regarded roles from the same year  – I would have been behind her winning. 

The only other major role we have in the movie is the mother of a student, as played by Viola Davis. She only has a few minutes on screen, and those are opposite Meryl Streep as they walk through a park and discuss the events that have set Sister Aloysius on her course of action. Some of the things she says can be read so cold, and yet so amazingly loving to her son. She points out that the nun ought to be taking action against her priest, if he’s done wrong and not punishing her son – or getting her and the boy’s father involved. Which really, seems to both appall and make Sister Aloysius momentarily reconsider her actions. 

Lastly, cast-wise, I need to momentarily talk about the kids in the movie. The two that I really want to mention are Paulie Litt, who was my favorite of the child performers in this movie. He plays Tommy Conroy and he gets a couple of moments in the movie that are pretty funny – especially involving a transistor radio and Meryl Streep. The other is Joseph Foster, who plays Donald Miller, the young boy that sort of sets off the events that bring us this story. Donald is the first african-american student at this school and as an altar boy is bound to have a closer relationship with the priest than other boys would. But, it’s when this relationship seems to extend further than just attending to mass, that the other sister’s get involved. Joseph Foster doesn’t really get much to do in the movie. I can see where it would be hard to direct a child to perform, perhaps how was needed for this role. It’s spelled out pretty implicitly that Donald Miller was indeed supposed to not only be facing the obstacle of being black in the 1960’s, but also being gay. The boy doesn’t play to any stereotype, and we’re only revealed to his character by the descriptions of the grown ups taking care of him. 

While I don’t want to delve too deeply into the themes of the movie, especially since it’s been discussed at much deeper lengths on other reviews, but I do feel the need to mention them. One is the wind and continued opened windows that seem to blow on Sister Aloysius, whenever we then see Father Flynn. A new wind, so to speak that she repeatedly blocks out and does not allow to over take her – much as she does with the priest. The other is the wonderful mirrored images of the main three grownups, within three children in the school. Obviously Donald Miller is meant to represent Father Flynn. The boy named William London, really seems to mirror Sister Aloysius in both of their dislike in other people and specifically Father Flynn. Then we have the boy who the movie actually opens with, Jimmy Hurley, who is the other altar boy with Donald and only gets a couple of moments to shine in the movie. One when he desperately wants to answer a question in class and the other when he’s been sent to the principal’s office. And Jimmy really seems to be another iteration of Sister James. He is there but quiet, he attempts to stand up for himself, or express himself and is quickly shut down and backed down. 

Doubt is a fantastic movie. One that makes you think not only about what happens in the movie, but also might make you question your own values and beliefs. 

Also recommended:
SLEEPERS
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE
and call it cliche, but THE SOUND OF MUSIC

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