Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Home' Checks Its Privilege

In case you're worried that I don't know what day it is, don't be! I know that today is Wednesday, but I got caught up yesterday* and wasn't able to post this, so I figure I might as well get it out now when the film is still new to theaters and you aren't sick to death of hearing about it.

Or I would be worried about you getting sick of hearing about it if I thought that really anybody was actually talking about Home. Unfortunately, however, they aren't. Yup, it seems like yet another Dreamworks film with an engaging, multi-racial cast, and a compelling story about overcoming differences is being released to a wave of silence and crickets from the critical community. Wonderful.

And that's a damn shame, because Home, far from being the pandering drivel that its trailer seemed to suggest it would be, is actually a very smart and incredibly sincere story about learning to see things through other people's eyes, checking your privilege, and finding family in the weirdest places. 

It's not just some silly adventure with aliens, but seems to have some truly complex things to say about colonialism, the human experience, and, well, fine, also silly adventures. But it's a lot more than it seems at first glance. And it seems to be yet another case of the marketing for a film rather spectacularly screwing the film itself over.

So, with all that having been said, what is Home actually about? Good question! As it turns out, it is almost exactly not what the trailer said it was about - nope. Instead, this is a movie about an alien invasion, and the invasion happens in the first five minutes.

Our main character, Oh (Jim Parsons), is a member of the alien race the Boov. The Boov consider themselves the "number one race at running away," and their entire culture is based around avoiding conflict. They're avoiding conflict specifically with another race, the Gorg, a fearsome looking race of like fire-breathing starfishes. Sort of. Anyway, the Boov are clearly the good guys because they're soft and squishy little squid things and they turn different colors based on their emotions. Adorable!

The Boov have had to abandon their last planet when the Gorg caught up with them, and now they're on their way to their new home: Earth! The Boov are informed by their fearless leader, Captain Smek (Steve Martin), that Earth is basically uninhabited. There is a native race of "humans" there, but the humans are backwards and stupid and need Boov help to improve themselves. So, as a basic part of the invasion, the Boov suction all the humans in the world up, and place them in little "human reserves" out in the middle of nowhere. Lots of houses and food and carnival rides and stuff so the humans are happy and can entertain themselves while the Boov take over all the rest of the planet.

Oh is, for the record, totally on board with this plan. He's** very excited to make a new life in this new planet, and he looks forward to being social with his friends and neighbors. Just one problem: Boov don't really do social stuff. Their entire culture is based on conformity and cowardice. They do not interact with each other and they do not throw housewarming parties, and they do not like Oh.

In Oh's desperate attempts to get someone, anyone, to be his friend, he accidentally sends out invitations to his housewarming to everyone. Literally everyone. Everyone in the galaxy. Which is a stupid and contrived plot device, but whatever. The result is that Oh's party invitation, which includes really specific directions on how to get to his apartment, and also Earth, has been sent out to everyone, including the Gorg. The Boov are screwed.

Because he's not stupid and he knows what's going to happen to him, Oh runs like hell away from the cops who would very much like to arrest him. And as he's running away, he runs straight into Tip, aka Gratuity Tucci (Rihanna), the lone human left outside of the human preserves. Tip was just chilling with her mom when the invasion began, but due to a mixup with the Boov's human-identifying device (her cat got in the way), Tip and her cat, Pig, were left behind while her mother was taken away. And so Tip understandably hates the Boov and desperately wants to find her mother.

How fortunate (sarcasm) then that her first encounter after finally grabbing the car and making a break for it, is with Oh. Tip is super pissed at Oh at first, but as time goes on, she realizes that he's running too, and he realizes that Captain Smek might have left out some key information about the humans when he gave them the briefing on this planet.

So from there it's pretty much a silly adventure film. Oh makes Tip's car into a hovercar (using a slushie machine) and ends up taking her to Boov headquarters in Paris so she can find her mom. In the process they are pursued by Boov agents (who just want to get Oh's password so they can cancel the email before it reaches the Gorg), and so on. It's silly and fun and very adorable.

But it's also surprisingly deep, because interspersed in this really ridiculous plot are moments where the film stops to make some incredibly heavy-handed (but still good) comments about colonialism and privilege and perspective. 

Essentially, the story they tell here is one where the alien invaders don't view the humans on Earth as being equal to them, and so they put them in camps "for their own good". They completely discount the idea that anything the humans have could be useful to them, and they refuse to acknowledge anything that the Boov cannot use as being useful at all. And the Boov sort of generally assume that humans will love them, for no other reason than that they "saved" them - an idea which is fervently crushed by Tip in her first minute on screen.

In short, the Boov have a lot of privilege in this story, the privilege to not have to consider the human point of view, and when Oh is confronted by Tip's side of the story, he is shocked to realize that the Boov have not been greeted as the great liberators they were told they were, but rather as evil invading aliens.

Which is an intense and awesome statement for a movie like this to be making, and I wholeheartedly applaud it. The film never skirts around the fact that the Boov have done something very bad here, and as the film progresses, it also starts to undermine our unconscious acceptance of the Boov as the good guys. We even eventually come to see (SPOILERS) that the Gorg aren't actually evil. They aren't pursuing the Boov out of malignant hate or anything, but because the Boov stole something from them that they desperately want back.

It's this reversal most of all that makes the film really good - it's the realization, by Oh and then eventually by other Boov too, that they are not innocent in their own narrative. As Oh puts it, "The Gorg are not the takers, we are." And this revelation is sort of haunting, not just because it's in a kids' movie, but because we're not used to seeing issues like this confronted at all. Especially not confronted by adorable little purple aliens voiced by Jim Parsons.

The film doesn't relent on this front, and instead chooses to dismantle all of Boov culture, basically, explaining how easy it is to build a narrative where you are always good and right, and in so doing, hurt others without realizing it. Oh comes to see all the bad stuff the Boov have done, but instead of letting that make him jaded or angry, he just decides to do it better now. And that's what the film is, ultimately, about: realizing when you've made a mistake and then doing your best to fix it instead of running away.

Which brings me to one of the other really fantastic points this film makes: it shows that running away can be just as destructive and bad as fighting and violence. It points out that "refusing to make a choice" is still a choice, and that cowardice can be even more poisonous than outright hatred. Because the Boov have been running for so long, they value cowardice and fear above all else, but that's why their society is so close-minded about considering that they might be wrong. They refuse confrontation, and in so doing, make everything worse.

Frankly, that's a surprising tack for a children's movie to take. Most prefer to tell us that confrontation should be avoided at all costs, and that people who love us would never confront us with bad stuff. Which is, of course, utter crap. The people who love us are exactly the people who should confront us with bad stuff, because otherwise we will never learn anything! Real love isn't pretending there's never a problem, it's confronting it before it festers and becomes something worse.

This movie, then, is really remarkable in that it's about Oh's transformation from a strange little Boov who just wants to fit in, into a courageous and confrontational Boov who is willing to admit past mistakes and try to make things right. It's great.

Also worth mentioning, though slightly less related to the theme of the main story, is the fact that this is one of the first digital animation films with a black protagonist, let alone a female black protagonist. 

And to top it all of, we come to discover that Tip's story is an unusual one too: she and her mother (voiced by Jennifer Lopez) have just moved to (probably) New York from Barbados. Tip doesn't have any real friends yet and is having trouble fitting in, but she knows her mother loves her and did this to give them a better life. So that's super interesting to have in there too. 

But it's a really impressive feature of this film that Tip's character design, as a (probably) biracial daughter of a single mom and a recent immigrant, isn't what really caught my attention about this movie. The rest of the plot is good enough for that to just be a fact about Tip, not her defining feature. Her defining feature is actually that she feels lost, and she misses her mom. The movie does a lot to humanize Tip and allows her to be a complex and interesting female character. Frankly, she's better than most live action female characters I've seen lately.

So, with all of this in mind, it's not super hard to think of why this movie might be getting less press than other animated flicks. It's an openly anti-colonialist movie about considering life from the perspective of "The Other" that stars a black preteen girl and an alien. And you should watch it. Not just because it so spits in the face of the usual kids' fare, but, you know, that doesn't hurt.

Watch it because it's good. And because the perspectives it espouses are important. But most of all, watch Home because it does the thing I really always want movies to do: it tells me a new story in a new way that changes how I view the world, and it does it all with great sincerity and heart. What more are you looking for, really?

Also the car is named Slushious, and it's great.
*I might have been reading fanfiction. Alternate Universe fanfiction where the characters from Inception are hosts on HGTV-like shows. Particularly a design competition reality show. I need help.

**The Boov don't seem to have gender, but since Oh is a weird Boov and seems to identify himself as male throughout the film - going into the men's room, being voiced by a male actor, etc - we're going to use male pronouns just for the sake of convenience. But I think it ultimately is probably more a case of Tip thinking of Oh as male and Oh not bothering to explain about Boov genders or lack thereof.


  1. I have to admit I was put off by the movie because of the trailers (though I still wanted it to do well because it had a black female protagonist). But after reading this review, I'll give it another look.

    After this and Frozen, I need to stop judging films based on trailers.

    1. It seems like as the years go on, trailers are less and less an indication of what movies are at all like. The Kingsman trailer? Completely non-representative. And this trailer was actively misleading. Marketing is weird.

  2. Yes, this movie was excellent. it took a while to shoehorn the family into the cinema to watch this because the trailers are kinda dreadful but luckily for once in my life having a young brother with a big bang theory obsession payed off!!

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