Idol Chatter

away-from-her_idol.jpgI don’t care for disease-of-the-week TV movies, and I especially don’t care for movies that think they know how to dramatize the plight of Alzheimer’s Disease (don’t even get me started on “The Notebook”). And a lot of this has to do with my years of struggle and turmoil dealing with a family member who has the disease. So despite the enormous critical praise for the drama “Away From Her,” I really dreaded going to see this film (It was another one of the fabulous selections at Michael Moore’s film festival this year).
However, as heartbreaking as this movie is to watch, it is certainly the most accurate depiction of what those who love someone with Alzheimer’s go through. It is also a restrained but powerful look at the vows we make to each other in spite of our failings– and the sacrifices necessary to keep them. “Away From Her” is the most life-affirming, inspirational movie I have seen this year; if we don’t hear more about it at Oscar time, I will be severely disappointed.

Grant and Fiona (Julie Christie) have been madly in love since she was just out of high school. He is a professor, and she is an artsy type with a love of photography and books. But when she begins to slowly deteriorate because of early onset Alzheimer’s, they are faced with questions and circumstances that test their commitment to each other.
The decisions only become more difficult when Grant reluctantly places Fiona in a care facility, and she forms an attachment with another resident. Soon, Grant has to make a sacrifice out of his devotion to Fiona that goes far beyond anything written in any wedding vows.
Yes, it still sounds a little like disease-of-the-week fare, but in the hands of first time director and writer Sarah Polley, this movie is effecting because Polley never lets the material lapse into melodrama. When the audience discovers that Grant and Fiona’s relationship has not exactly been a storybook marriage after all, (it’s revealed in one insignificant scene in a car, and that’s all the information we are ever given) we must fill in the blanks ourselves. It also helps that there are also unlikely moments of spontaneous humor in the middle of the bleakest conversations that provide relief for both the characters and for us–it underscores that life does, indeed, have to go on.
While the movie has to inevitably gloss over some aspects of Fiona’s illness (if you want to put your loved one in a care facility like the one Fiona is in, you’d better have Donald Trump kind of money), the emotional punch of this movie is still found in Polley’s amazing attention to detail. From the canned speech the care facility’s director gives Grant when he first tours the place to his outrage when he arrives one day to find Fiona wearing a yellow sweater (Grant knows his wife has always hated yellow), Polley captures the unique kind of grief that comes with Alzheimer’s–the extreme forms of denial the ones left behind go through when caring for those with the illness, and the odd connections one makes with others who also care for someone with Alzheimer’s.
For me, the scene that sums up the film is an animated but touching exchange late in the movie Grant has with with an angry teen forced to visit a relative, and who at first thinks that Grant is also a resident. And because of the final shot of that scene, I want to make a challenge to any boomers who see this movie in theaters or when it comes out on DVD this fall: Watch this movie with your favorite millenial/generation Y’er. Tell them that in a shallow, selfish, mixed-up culture, this story is a messy, uncomfortable, but true definition of commitment and unconditional love in the flesh.
You just might end up having a conversation with them that neither of you will ever forget.

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