The poster says, “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.” So we know where it’s all going, and just settle back to enjoy the ride. And an enjoyable ride it is, too.
The guy who deserves next year’s best acting Oscar is the actor who has the impossible job of playing a doctor who is interviewing single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) for a job and is not utterly charmed by her. The audience has no such obligation, and we lose our hearts immediately.
Erin leaves that interview, climbs into her crummy car, and gets slammed into by another doctor. When she loses her lawsuit against him, she forces the lawyer who represented her to give her a job (Albert Finney as Ed Masry). No one wants her there, and no one likes her because she has a big mouth and wears trashy clothes. But she is curious and tenacious. She gets interested in a real estate file that includes medical records, and she goes off to investigate.
It turns out that the community of Hinkley has been poisoned by hexavent chromium, leaching into the drinking water from a PG&E plant. Erin is able to gain the trust of the community and help Ed put together a case that would win the largest direct claim settlement in American history.
Julia Roberts keeps getting better and better, more luminous, and at the same time more vulnerable and more in control. She plays Erin as a woman who never stopped believing in herself and yet is deeply touched when others believe in her, too. She understands the way the people in Hinkley feel, mistrustful of lawyers and overwhelmed by the odds. She understands that “people want to tell their stories.” And she has enough confidence in herself to know that, while she might not have been able to keep her beauty queen promise of ending world hunger, this is a promise she can keep.
She understands, too, that there will be costs. A romance with a loving biker/nanny (George, played by Aaron Eckhart, who makes that combination endearingly believable) and her relationships with her children are threatened by her devotion to the case. In a heartbreaking scene, she is driving back home after a hard day and George tells her that her baby spoke her first word. Erin is overjoyed at the news and devastated to have missed it. The look in her eyes as George tells her all about it is complex, rich, perfect.
And there are many “Rocky”/”Norma Rae”-style feel-good moments, like when PG&E’s first lawyer, looking like a high school debate club president, tries to bully Erin and Ed, and when Erin uses everything from her cleavage to her baby to get access to the records she needs.
Parents should know that the movie’s R rating comes from very strong language and some sexual references (Erin jokes that she got the cooperation of the town’s residents by performing sexual favors). And no matter how high the settlement, the fact remains that children and their families were made terribly ill, and no amount of money will make up for that.
Families who watch this movie should talk about why it is that Erin is able to connect with the residents of Hinkley, why she is reluctant to accept help from anyone, and the importance of not judging people based on their appearance. They may also want to talk about the issue of corporate responsibility. No one at PG&E wanted anyone to get hurt. How do problems like lack of accountability arise?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Sally Fields’ Oscar-winning performance in “Norma Rae.”