The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
Written by Paul Zindel and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Paul Newman
Americans are haunted by their alienation. It begins when you are a child, as your natural inclinations towards curiosity and play are effectively beaten out of you on all fronts. School is one institution that does much of the beating in conjunction with your parents and the Church. Most people learn how to conform and gel with the group so that every chugs along without a hitch. However, there are always some, the ones with the most cruelty visited upon them that they can’t get past it, that remain sunk in the mire of human development. That number grows in times like these, as people increase the rate of everyday cruelty. The callous way so many want to “return to normal” while COVID-19 is still a threat to health, those with disabilities and autoimmune issues are ignored. The increase in public outbursts is another sign of people losing their minds over inconveniences because that’s the only thing they demand out of life, that their treats be easy to access. It’s enough to make you grow to hate the world.
Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward) is a middle-aged widow raising two adolescent daughters. Ruth (Roberta Wallach) is the older girl, interested in boys and growing increasingly tired of her mother’s aimless ranting while relying on the family’s help during her nightly epilepsy attacks. Matilda (Nell Potter) is introspective and passionately interested in botany, inspired by her favorite teacher. Matilda has a bright future in the sciences but goes mostly unnoticed in her own home. Their house was a lovely Victorian, now dilapidated and crumbling as the neighborhood around them slides into poverty. Beatrice dreams of opening a nice tea shop but has her excitement dashed by the slightest bump in the road. So instead, she settles for taking care of an octogenarian woman whose daughter is away on business all the time. The light struggles to touch this home, but it does.
The film’s title refers to an ongoing science experiment Matilda keeps in her bedroom. First, she exposes her marigold seeds to small bursts of gamma radiation at school. Then, Matilda plants the seeds at home while observing and documenting their growth. She finds that most seeds cannot handle the gamma rays and die quickly. However, some seeds don’t die and transform into mutations, not dying from the exposure but becoming something new and beautiful. This is the film’s core theme: under horrible, dehumanizing conditions, most of us experience a soul death, but some always find ways to endure to grow into something new.
In the case of the film, Matilda is that flower that isn’t allowing her environment to kill her. We see only the faintest glimpse of that blossom in the third act of the film when the little girl delivers a speech at a school assembly on her flowers. She talks throughout the film about the expansion of her consciousness from what she’s learning in science class. Beatrice seems unable to hear her daughter when the girl explains the connection between the atoms that compose human beings and the particles that make up distant stars. Beatrice is incapable of seeing that far beyond her own trauma. Outer space is a fantasy to her because the only thing real is the mundane plodding nature of existing. This mother seems intent on teaching her children to hate the world because of how cruel the world has been to her.
Each character is faced with the seeming inevitability of a horrible future, but not all are willing to accept that. Beatrice still holds a spark of something because she can’t stop dreaming of a way out through some little shop or business. The bitterness she holds towards life drags her down, but we eventually learn this has plagued the woman her whole life. Beatrice is in pain from untreated mental illness and the abuse she suffered from her peers when she was around her daughters’ ages. This darkness so consumes Beatrice that she comes to hate her own daughters’ sources of happiness. Matilda has a pet rabbit her science teacher let her keep, and her mother rants about wanting to kill the thing every time she walks into the house. Matilda is the polar opposite of her mother, able to find beauty in the most minor things that most people would walk by and not notice.
Beatrice constantly seems jealous of Ruth and her popularity at school, doing things to undermine her eldest daughter in the same way she shits all over her youngest’s aspirations. When Matilda wins a prize for her science work at school, Beatrice suddenly changes her tune, wanting to be able to brag about her child’s academic accomplishment even though she couldn’t have cared less prior. Ruth has anxieties about Beatrice and sees her as a hindrance to her own social climbing. When the eldest girl learns about her mother’s teenage years, she becomes even more fired up about attacking Beatrice.
Author Paul Lindel drew from his own childhood but also the writing of Tennessee Williams. The story has that closed feeling of a Williams play, centered on long-simmering domestic tensions between family members. The themes of the film center around the clash between authority and individuality, with Beatrice and Matilda representing these ideas, respectively. Lindel’s uniqueness is not one of existing apart from the world but resisting authoritarian figures that seek to dehumanize you. By connecting with the world in all its chaotic messiness, you can find kindred souls and begin to build something. It won’t be painless, but nothing really is, and so much pain we put ourselves through is consistently for fruitless goals.
Beatrice is incapable of making human connections anymore, as evidenced by her final cry, “My heart is full.” This is played as both the words she wants to say about Matilda when attending the assembly, but how she delivers them changes the meaning. They are not an expression of love but a hand extended to block, saying she cannot love any more than she already does. Matilda’s final words serve as an answer to a question asked by Beatrice earlier. To herself, sitting on the porch after a long, painful night, Matilda declares, “No, mama. I don’t hate the world.” As things break down around us, we, too, must find a way to love this world enough to save the good in it.