Hello, My Name is Doris (2016)
Written by Laura Terruso & Michael Showalter
Directed by Michael Showalter
Doris Miller (Sally Field) has just lost her mother. She’s lived all her sixty-something years on Staten Island with her mom, and now she isn’t quite sure what to do with her life. She does data entry for an apparel company in the city and finds herself becoming infatuated with John (Max Greenfield), the new art director. Doris begins to challenge her own routines and expand her horizons in a film that seeks to play with our expectations of romantic comedies.
Director Michael Showalter is best known to audiences for his work with The State (Wet Hot American Summer) and Stella. He also wrote and directed the 2005 independent film The Baxter, an examination of romantic comedies from the point of view of the male paramour left behind by the female lead when she finally gets together with the male lead. It’s obvious Showalter has a very strong love of romantic comedies and has a lot of fun playing with the tropes. In Doris, our lead is a much older woman than we expect and from there he asks a lot of questions about the perception of age in mainstream films.
Doris is “cute” and “adorable” to the Williamsburg hipster crowd that eventually take her in, the same perception most Hollywood media gives to the elderly. They are robbed of all their agency and sexuality in romantic scenarios and typically become inspirational props for the young, attractive leads. But Sally Field has the acting talent to bring so much nuance and complexity to Doris. We spend a lot of time in personal life, meeting her best friend (Roz) and seeing them attend lectures at the YWCA. There’s a lot covered about the aftermath of her mother’s death and the conflict she has with her younger brother (Stephen Root) about what to do with the house and their mother’s belongings.
The problems with the movie lie in the script’s inability to decide on what exactly it wants to be. Is this a character study of Doris? Is this a Harold & Maude style comedy-drama? Is it an upending of traditional romantic comedy tropes? Sadly, it never actually decides what it wants and as a result, stumbles to a finale. I really liked how the film ended, it doesn’t have the emotional payoff you would expect, but its ending has meaning instead. The bad part is how it stumbles in the third act to get there.
The strength of the film lies in the performance given by Sally Field. Hollywood has major issues with age discrimination, particularly when it comes to casting women over the age of 45-ish. Field is a reminder of what experience does to an actor. With more life experience comes the ability to discover things about a character a fresh-faced, nervous newcomer might not be able to. Field is very comfortable in this role and not afraid to embarrass herself and work in that awkward space created by the character’s choices. She keeps Doris from becoming a caricature. Doris is so scared of the world with good reason but her growth to want to take risks and explore the world feel natural and earned.
Showalter has managed to produce an incredibly uncomfortable romantic comedy, and it is so refreshing. While the script has some problems, particularly pacing in that third act, it intentionally leaves individual plots unresolved. Doris’ life is not tied up in a pretty bow at the end. She makes some tough choices, and some relationships feel like they’re on a downswing the last time certain characters appear. But the focus of the film is Doris’ resiliency. She allowed fear to contain her in the bubble of Staten Island for so long but by making connections with other people, even those relationships don’t last she has gained the courage to venture out and explore.