Director in Focus: John Sayles – Passion Fish

Passion Fish (1992, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Angela Bassett, Nora Dunn, Sheila Kelly

John Sayles makes films that are a bizarre phenomenon amidst Hollywood culture. His characters are all adults, usually in their late 30s, early 40s. They actually behave like adults. The conflict in these films is muted and commonly unresolved. It’s no wonder he is forced to make films independently. This particular film features the “umarketable” combo of two women in their late 30s and a conflict that is never truly resolved.

May-Alice (McDonnell) is a soap actress paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. This is the last in a series of disappointments that sends the obstinate woman back to her family home on the Gulf in Louisiana. She goes through a series of in-home caregivers that are driven away by her temper, until she meets Chantelle (Woodard). The two women bond after Chantelle shows May-Alice she’s going to make her work to rehabilitate her body. Each woman learns about the other’s past and through these revelations they grow closer and learn to put down their aggressive facades.

This could have been a very overwrought melodrama, but Sayles is able to make very fleshed out, three dimensional characters. The friends and uncle of May-Alice who come to visit feel very unique in this world. The love interests of both characters feel very real as well, despite not having all that much screen time. Each of these characters feels like they could support a feature, or at least a short, of their own. And May-Alice plays a different role with each person, revealing that the only time she isn’t acting is when it is just she and Chantelle.

This is not a film for the CG driven and big explosion crowd. If you are looking for a thoughtful film about something, and a film that really highlights strong female acting, then I would definitely recommend you pick this up.

Some final thoughts about John Sayles: Sayles is most definitely an independent spirit. His films are not the kind Hollywood would ever think to make, and its a good thing he is there to make them. I can see how his style of muted filmmaking has influenced a lot of similar indie filmmakers today. He never felt a need to be too stylistic with his camera, preferring to make it clean and crisp, while focusing on fleshed out characters who are real people.

Films I watched by this director: Lone Star, Matewan, Men With Guns, Silver City, and Passion Fish

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