Written by Gretchen Cole, Executive Assistant
If you are looking after an older family member, you know it’s important to give yourself the same gift of time that you are giving to your loved one, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. You may be too physically exhausted to take a walk and too mentally exhausted to read a book. Even if you can manage to turn on a movie, sometimes it can be hard to pay attention to anything that’s not related to your situation. In the story of your life, you feel like a supporting character.
And there are a lot of inspiring movies, starring a lot of wonderful actors, that could be grouped under the category “Life Begins at 70.” As we get older, the actors we’ve grown up with are showing us the possibilities that aging brings, and that’s great. But if you as a caregiver would like to, just once, see things from your own perspective and have a laugh into the bargain, Hollywood can make that happen, too.
“The Farewell” is a brand-new movie based, as it says in the very beginning, “on a true lie.” In the very first scene, a young woman (Awkwafina) is navigating the streets of New York City while having a phone conversation with her Grandma, or “NaiNai,” as she is called in Chinese. Grandma may be half a world away in Changchun, China, but she can tell that Billi is not doing well. “Are you warm enough? Are you wearing a hat?” “Yes, NaiNai, I’m wearing a hat,” Billi says, and we know as we look at her that there is more than one lie in this true story.
While a film about a beloved grandmother with a terminal diagnosis might seem like anything but escapist fare, “The Farewell” is a laugh-out-loud comedy. The movie switches easily from English to Chinese with subtitles, and it is very specific to the cultural experience of a family that has roots in China but branches overseas. However, a wide audience is connecting with its themes, which include the ways we shield our loved ones from painful truths, what we expect from and what we owe to others, and, of course, the magical bond that can exist between an adult grandchild and her beloved grandparent.
While NaiNai is a charming and competent matriarch, many films have dealt with more problematic elders. “Hanging Up” has proved to be a perennial, probably because it depicts such a common family dynamic. Delia and Nora Ephron wrote the smart, funny script with a true-to-life feel about three sisters struggling to care for a father none of them much like. America’s Sweetheart, as Meg Ryan used to be known, bears the brunt of the responsibility, while her sisters swan in and out vacuuming up all the credit. The movie moves between memory and reality as Ryan’s character tries to reconcile negative events of the past with the kindness she’s choosing to show in the present.
If you like your comedy with a little more edge, try “The Savages.” It’s about a grown brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) who are not even on speaking terms with their dad when they get a call demanding that they show up and start taking responsibility for him. They have plenty of their own professional and personal issues, but they somehow muddle through the nightmarish sequence of decisions that must be made when a formerly powerful parent suddenly needs round-the-clock assistance. As they struggle with guilt and resentment, they console each other: “We’re taking better care of the old man than he ever did of us.”
If you’re in the mood for a movie about people whose caregiving problems (and solutions) are more dramatic than yours, check out “Robot and Frank.” In this movie set in the near future, not only is Dad distant, demented and grumpy; he’s also a career criminal whose definition of “active lifestyle” is not completely legal. And when his kids are overwhelmed by his needs, they don’t just enlist professional help—they enlist an electronic servant. Hilarity and humanity ensue. Susan Sarandon is a beautiful surprise in this film that will remind you that things could always be worse.
In the coming months many other films depicting life for seniors will be released in theaters, as well as available through streaming services and on cable.
Printed in the Daily Local News on Wednesday, August 14, 2019.