Finally! I went to see The Savages on MLK day. I saw it at Milwaukee’s “Downer” Theatre – named after the street, not the type of movies they show. The Savages isn’t an “upper” for sure. But it’s a sweet tale of a brother and sister who, at long last, wrestle with their past and start to grow up.
The Savages is not really about dementia – it’s not really about the father at all. We know very little about Lenny Savage (played by Philip Bosco), except that he clearly has a short fuse, and when it goes, he’s capable of almost anything from hitting his kids to scrawling words on the wall in his own feces. He’s confused at times, but the film makes no attempt to define his condition. He’s in a nursing home because the family has no money and because he is at risk for falls.
There are a couple of scenes that really stand out. The opening of the film is a hazy, color-saturated, slow motion dolly track through Sun City, accompanied by a simple, childlike song. Men ride golf carts here. Houses are perfectly coiffed. Older women in brilliant blue sequined body suits dance among hyper-pruned rows of shrubbery. This seems like some bizarre afterlife. But then, when we go inside the house, we find Doris staring blankly and Lenny in a power struggle with her home health aide. Later in the film, Jon (Wendy’s brother, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) shouts that all that landscaping, all that interior decorating, is just disguising the fact that people are decaying inside. And so they are. It isn’t pretty. But when we open ourselves to it, what can we experience? What can we learn?
Wendy learns to grow up. To write her play. To get out of her bad relationship. Jon learns to finish his book and be an equal partner to his girlfriend. Lenny doesn’t grow or change. His only real moment of defining action (except the opening scrawling in feces moment), is when he turns down his hearing aid to let his children argue in private, in his presence.
The take-away from this film?
It’s really about how the act of caring for someone, even someone you don’t necessarily like, can change your life for the better.
It’s really about how we prefer not to grow up (Wendy…from Peter Pan?), to admit that we are mortal, to face what dying means in practical terms. We dance and play and distract ourselves from what might bring us tremendous growth.
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