Margaret DeRosia

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Lives of Funny Girls and Women


I haven’t blogged in a while because I started a new job. When you’re updating websites all day at the office, it’s hard to come home and spend time on your own.

Yet I also have been reading more because of my commute. Inspired by Nick Hornby’s screenwriting in Brooklyn, I read his latest novel, Funny Girl, a lighthearted romp through swinging sixties’ London.

In the book, gorgeous Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball. It opens with a drab beauty pageant, where she is crowned Miss Blackpool — only to reject the crown and flee to London. Soon Barbara, neé “Sophie Straw,” lands her big break. A gaggle of BBC writers and producers spot their diamond in the rough and retool a domestic sitcom pilot. She’s a smash.

The book is pure winsome comedy, with Hornby’s requisite cast of beguiling characters, minor conflicts and bittersweet resolution. Until Funny Girl, most of Hornby’s novels focused mostly on boys and men. They diverge from his screenplays.  An Education, Wild and Brooklyn are dramas of complicated, ambitious young women struggling to self-define — even though it comes at a loss.

An Education shows the cost on a teenage girl entering into an affair with a man several decades her senior. She’s no Lolita nor simple victim, but the undercurrents of anxiety deepen as the narrative unfolds and her prospects for an actual university education are jeopardized.

Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Coast Trail to grieve her mother and her own lost sense of self. Near the beginning, Strayed quotes Emily Dickinson: “If your nerve deny you/go above your nerve.” And so she does. Hornby avoids emulating the bestselling book. Instead, he focuses on the medium of film having its own unique capacity to represent the scattering and devastating rhythm of grief through jarring memories.

At first, Funny Girl seems a different breed. Yet Barbara/Sophie is just as invested in self-defining as her cinematic sisters. For example, she’s gutsy enough to criticize the sitcom mid-audition. Then she joins the writers in re-writing the show that turns her into a star. And her show is titled — with parentheses deliberate —  Barbara (and Jim). It’s her show, not the couple’s.

The biggest villain of Funny Girl is a snobby TV critic named Vernon Whitfield. He dismisses shows like Barbara (and Jim) — and by extension the people who love them. As the show’s producer reflects: “What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Here is where Hornby’s stories converge. Whether drama or comedy, his writing sits squarely in the popular. Whether it’s the freshness of confronting class wars in Funny Girl or the high-profile unsentimental dramas of girls’ and women’s lives in An Education, Wild and Brooklyn, Hornby doesn’t reject the popular — even, and perhaps especially, for the girls and women it too often leaves behind.


It’s a Wrap: TIFF 2015 Highlights


The 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) concluded on Sunday. Overall, it was a mixed bag. I enjoyed scouring the program, chatting in lineups, watching the movies and listening to Q&As. Yet the films did not transport me.

Maybe it’s because I couldn’t see Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, Charlie Kaufman’s Anamolisa (here’s the post-screening Q&A ) and Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses.  And Todd Haynes’ Carol wasn’t there. If I’d seen those, it could have been a different story.

Overall, this year was good, not great, like a three-star film. Even surprise audience award winner Room didn’t leave a consensus of reviewers gushing and arguing like Slumdog Millionaire or Precious recently did. So with this mood in mind, I offer three highlights:

London Road (dir. Rufus Norris, UK)

This “verbatim musical” offered a powerful tapestry of working-class voices. Through repetition, the film creates a unique experience that was more rhythmic and unnerving than melodic.

Allegiances and identification keep shifting. The film does not focus on either the killer or the victims, and never reveals the killer’s exact identity. He isn’t the point. Instead, the community’s not always charitable reactions are.

Early on, two schoolgirls sing “You automatically think it could be him.” They look and skitter nervously about, their female reaction juxtaposing the men’s, especially men of colour’s, who are the target of their suspicions. This captures how London Road was as morally and cinematographically great as it was gray. Like the characters, we too keep trying to parse the good from the bad, not always with success.

Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley, UK/Ireland/Canada)

Saorise Ronan has been receiving accolades for her performance, and rightly so. She plays Eilis, who emigrates from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s and must decide whether to embrace her new world.

Like Kenneth Turan’s blurb indicates, Brooklyn is great old-school filmmaking, albeit not the typical (male) immigrant’s journey. It focuses more on Eilis’ psychological struggles, not only the loss, but also the heady pleasures of liberating herself from hometown assumptions and remaking herself anew.

Here, Nick Hornby (An Education, Wild) scripts another tender yet unsentimental female coming of age. Ronan breathes such life into it, morphing from timid to tragic to confident. Judging from audience reactions, it’s truly moving. It will be interesting to see if it resonates with the Academy.

Mr. Right (dir. Paco Cabezas, USA)

My biggest surprise was this free-wheeling, genre-resisting flick. Kudos to TIFF for choosing romantic comedy to close the festival.

Nine nights of drama can leave one feeling terribly bleak. Not this film, which marries its meet-cute romance to the tone and carnage of In Bruges. Here, when hitman Francis (Sam Rockwell) spots Martha (Anna Kendrick), their chemistry is palpable and fun.

At first, I saw this movie as primarily for those under 25. Yet its celebration of unconventionality as a strength, not liability, grew on me. Francis, like the film, truly fosters Martha to be manic, not manic pixie. There’s nothing to be gained by her toning down to fit in. Hardly just arm candy, Martha grows and gets in touch with her own body’s skills in delightful ways. I loved seeing Kendrick, usually reserved and ironic, really let loose.

Certain films seem amazing at first and they stay so after. Others inspire love but fade. Then there are films like Mr. Right — slight at first glance, they charm you in retrospect as their full originality takes shape.

Maybe film festivals are like that, too. Even less-than-stellar years bring insights and experiences unavailable elsewhere. So share your highlights reel below, and don’t forget the popcorn.

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