Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Song of the Sea' Explores Grief

We're at last coming to the end of voting for The 2014 Undies, finishing off with the Best Overall round - which pits the winners of the five main categories against each other - and as such I realized this weekend that I'd better get a move on! I still had to see two of the five films, after all, and there is limited time in which to do so.*

All of which is to say that I saw Song of the Sea, the animated finalist, last night, and I have things to say about it. Complimentary things, don't worry.

I mean, it kind of felt like cheating, actually, because normally when I watch movies I'm relatively unbiased. Granted, I'm biased by the fact that I am a person and no one is truly objective, but I don't necessarily know one way or the other if I'm going to love a movie. That kind of unbiased. I don't know if it's going to be my definition of good.

In this case, however, I pretty much did know that, because this is the movie that won the Animated Films category and therefore at least some people think it's better than all of those other movies. Since a lot of the voters are people whose opinion I quite trust, I felt pretty good going into this that I was going to like the movie. And I did. So that's nice.

But what actually impressed me about Song of the Sea, and what really surprised me, the bit I wasn't prepared for, is how textured and deep the story is. This is a film that works on multiple levels. It takes the simplest story an animated film is likely to tell - children dealing with the loss of a parent - and spins it wide until it reaches mythic proportions. But it also manages to keep that very small tenderness and personal grief that makes a story like this worth telling. Honestly, it's masterfully done. And when you combine that with the beauty of the artwork and animation, the music, and just freaking everything else, it's not hard to see how this was titled the "best story told in the best way."

So what exactly is that story?

Song of the Sea is by the director of Secret of Kells, which I did not like. But this film takes all the vagueness that frustrated me in that film and does away with it. Here, our story is simple. Ish. Our hero is Ben (David Rawle) a little boy who lives with his parents in a lighthouse on the edge of the sea (in Ireland). His loving parents, Bronach (Lisa Hannigan) and Conor (Brendan Gleeson), keep the lighthouse and are cherishing, nurturing people who tell their son fairy stories and sing him songs and yay yay yay. Also they're expecting another baby.

But since this is an animated movie, something dire must happen to their mother, and it does. Late one night, Bronach goes into labor and something goes wrong. They're left with baby Saoirse (eventually voiced by Lucy O'Connell) and no Bronach, a fact that Ben then proceeds to resent Saoirse for until her sixth birthday. By that point, the family structure is set. Rebellious Ben, silent Saoirse, mourning Conor. Oh, and Granny (Fionnula Flannigan), Conor's mother who keeps trying to get them all to move into the city.

Things start to come to a head on Saoirse's sixth birthday. First, she steals her brother's magical seashell flute (a gift from their mother) and uses the magic to find her selkie coat. Then she sneaks out and swims with the seals, only to have her grandmother find her in the middle of the night and flip the hell out. Granny declares that the island is no fit place for children and decides she just must take them back to live with her. And Conor, distraught at the idea of losing Saoirse like he lost Bronach, locks her selkie coat in a box and dumps the box in the ocean.

Naturally, Ben, who at this point knows nothing of the supernatural side of things, resents Saoirse for getting them exiled to Granny's. He takes it out on her whenever he can. But it's not long (less than a day) before even more weird magic stuff happens. Some sidhe come looking for Saoirse, hoping that the selkie can sing her selkie song and set them all free from...something. Only Saoirse doesn't have her coat and she doesn't talk. Or sing. 

That's when Ben realizes that the supernatural is real and that his much maligned little sister is at least half selkie (I guess it's double X recessive or something). More than that, though, he discovers that the evil Macha (Fionnula Flannigan) of his mother's stories is after her, seeking to turn all the fairy folk to stone. 

And this starts Ben and Saoirse off on an adventure, trying to get back to the lighthouse so they can find Saoirse's coat and get her to sing the song that will save all the fairy folk from...something. I'll admit, I never really figured out what the thing was that she was saving them from, but it is very clear that she must sing her song by midnight or else bad things will happen to the sidhe. Including Saoirse.

I'm not doing a very good job of expressing what this story is, but take it from me, it's great. Ben is forced to confront the way he's been treating Saoirse all these years, and finally does apologize for his actions. He knows it's not her fault that their mother is gone. Intellectually he knows that. 

And it's a really interesting beat that the main villain of the film isn't so much evil - well, she is evil and terrifying - but that she refuses to feel her pain. Macha, said evil witch, is really just hurt and sad, and she decided that instead of feeling her grief, she would bottle it away, and she would do that to everyone else too. So whenever she feels something, she bottles it away, and slowly it's turned her to stone.

Again, not doing the best job explaining this, but the larger point that her character, and her son's character, Mac Lir (Brendan Gleeson), a giant who wept so much he cried an ocean and had to be turned to stone, is making is that she would rather not feel at all than feel bad things. And this parallels really strongly (and presumably intentionally) with the relationship between Granny and Conor. Conor is grieving, and Granny wants to make him better, so she takes away what she sees as the source of his grief: the children. Mac Lir was grieving and Macha wanted to make him better so she turned him to stone.

In the end, Macha can only be defeated by Ben's emotional maturation. She can only be defeated when he decides that, yes, he is sad and angry, but he needs to be sad and angry so that he can learn to be happy again. The pain isn't bad in itself, and denying the pain of grief is actually worse. You have to work through it, and there are no shortcuts. Which is a frankly intense thing for a children's movie to say, and I love it.

I don't really want to spoil the rest of what happens in the film, because it is lovely and gorgeous and beautiful, but I do want to highly advise that you go see it. The thing about this movie is, it's not telling a particularly new story. Most animated childrens' films are about loss and grief in some way or another. It's about the simplest story you can tell in the medium. 

And the story of the film, though very odd in places, is pretty simple and linear when you get down to it. It's a very literal reinterpretation of Campbell's Hero's Journey, and while that's fine, it's also not particularly novel.

But just because something has been done before doesn't mean it isn't worth doing again, and that's what this film proves. No, the story isn't very new or excited, but does it have to be? It's told well, and deeply, and you can feel how much all of the people who made this film cared about it. The fairy tales and folklore it references are common to Ireland but not something we see much in American cinema, so that makes them feel brand new, and, again, the art style is freaking phenomenal.

It's a question I ask myself a lot: is novelty important? Is it important that a story be new or fresh or something I've never heard before? And I go back and forth on the issue. On the one hand, I'm kind of over stories about little boys mourning their mothers. That sounds callous and cold, but it's true. I have seen so so so many of them. Stories about boys who desperately want to be loved. Stories about fractured families. Heck, I could write a whole dissertation on representations of white masculinity in sitcoms or something like that.

The point is, this isn't a new story, and there's a part of me that rather resents that. I want something fresh that I've never heard before. A story that is wholly different from what I know. And I still think that's valuable.

But there's value too in telling a good story very well. There's a lot of value in that. In just telling the story that's on your heart to tell as well as you possibly can. With beautiful art and loving parallels and music that makes you cry. So, no, Song of the Sea isn't revolutionary or surprising, but it is good. It's good in all the ways a movie can be good, and that's worth a lot.

And since this is a film that is stunning visually, here are some random screencaps. You're welcome.

*Votes are due by midnight tonight. HURRY UP AND VOTE!

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