Fourteen-year-old Henri (Addie Land) and her mother Kate (Cara Seymour) never quite make it. They are moving — again — this time to live with Kate’s mother. We don’t need details; it is clear from their tired eyes that Kate and Henri hardly hope for anything anymore.
Henri (short for Henrietta) starts high school and meets Chat (Noah Fleiss), a smooth and confident rich kid. When he brings her home, his family seems like everything Henri would have dreamed of if she had dared to dream that big. His parents are kind and generous and his home is comfortable and unpretentiously luxurious. She is thrilled and unsettled with the depth of her longing to fit in with Chat’s family. In order to think of herself as someone who could live that way, she feels she has to separate herself from Kate and her grandmother. For the first time, she feels ashamed of them and of herself.
Henri is so swept away she does not notice that Chat and his family are struggling, too. Chat’s father (Bruce Davison) goes out every night to drink and gamble, and Chat’s mother (Mary Kay Place) always stays home.
Chat pressures Henri to have sex with him and Henri is so young and so needy and has so little sense of herself that she does not know how to say no. Kate feels she is losing Henri, just as she is beginning to feel she can create the life she wants for both of them.
Writer/director Enid Zentelis says that she wanted to create real characters dealing with dire poverty without overly romanticizing them or portraying them as idiots or addicts. She succeeds — the movie’s greatest strength is that all of her characters on both sides of the economic spectrum are sensitively handled and beautifully portrayed.
In one scene Kate, desperate to see Henri, goes to Chet’s house as a door-to-door make-up saleswoman. When Henri insists that she not reveal their relationship, Chet’s mother asks Kate to demonstrate her products by giving Henri a make-over. She thinks it would be fun for Henri to feel a little glamorous. But it is excruciating for Henri, and for us, too.
Kate nervously but tenderly ministers to Henri in a moment that symbolizes Kate’s yearning to care for Henri, to make her happy and to make the world prettier for her. All it does is emphasize the resemblance between the two of them, which so horrifies Henri that she makes an impetuous decision she believes will separate herself from Kate decisively.
Zentelis also uses the settings effectively to tell the story, visually and metaphorically. Both Henri and Chat’s mother do not want to leave the house one as a sort of comfortable prison, one as a destination, but both as a kind of hide-out.
The script is sometimes awkward and over-reaching, but it is helped a great deal by the natural but sensitive performances, especially Gary Farmer as a man who befriends Kate and Henri. When he says, “I know who I am and I know who you are,” it is wise, moving, and romantic.
Parents should know that the movie deals very frankly with issues of teen sexual involvement. Chat pressures Henri to have sex with him by telling her that he can become sick by being “stopped.” She tries to stall for time by telling him that her mother would not want her to have sex unless they were dating and that she is “on the rag.” She does decide to enter into a sexual relationship, but it is clear that it is based on her anger at her mother and her desperate wish to be closer to Chat and his family, and that their relationship is not one of maturity or intimacy. The movie has alcohol and one character who may have a drinking problem. A parent slaps a child. Children are upset and hurt by their parents’ relationship problems. There are emotional confrontations, references to abuse, and a portrayal of the problems of poverty that may be upsetting. A strength of the movie is the positive portrayal of a Native American character and of a respectful and tender inter-racial relationship. In addition, the movie has a sympathetic portrayal of a character struggling with a psychological disorder.
Families who see this movie should talk about how teenagers often believe that other families have everything that they wish they had at home. How did the adults in your family use what they learned from other families to create a home that was better — or at least better for them — than the one they grew up in? Why did Henri feel pressured to have sex with Chat? How should she have responded to him? Both Henri and Chat seem ashamed of their parents. Why? Kate says, “There’s nothing worse than having my own child ashamed of me.” Given all she has had to deal with, is that surprising? Chat’s father says that his wife’s problem makes him feel lonely. Families should talk about the impact that illness has on other members of the household.
Families who appreciate this movie will appreciate the short story, “The Duchess and the Smugs,” by Pamela Frankau, Blue Car, thirteen, Lucas, and the underrated The Flamingo Kid, starring Matt Dillon.