2019 At the Movies: Laying down the Grudge
“Gotta lay down the grudge.” Or so says Shia LaBeouf, playing his father in a movie he wrote about his own childhood, Honey Boy. In a year full of catharses put to film, this moment is a symbol of the extreme effort and emotional contortion often involved in the very simple act of forgiveness.
I’ve always held tight to grudges – cradling, even nurturing the anger and resentment that fuels the sacred righteousness of the grudge. Of having been wronged. You see, revenge carries with it an immediate gratification. And sure, an eye-for-an-eye might leave the whole world blind, but if I’m already sightless, what does it matter to me? I’ve tried over the years to become a more forgiving person, but that’s an incredibly tall task. There’s no sense of justice or fairness in forgiveness. It’s hard to root in any notion of right and wrong. Sometimes it feels like the people whose transgressions have been consistently forgiven and forgotten, and who rarely show similar kindness to others, are running the world into the ground. But my year at the movies has left me feeling the resolute pain that comes with grudges stronger than ever before, and given me hope for the sweet catharsis that comes with forgiveness – the yin to the schadenfreude of revenge’s yang. Movies this year have showed the exhilaration that comes with an act as radical as unconditional compassion. They’ve pondered the futility of hatred, and of violence. And they’ve also let me know that I’m not alone – that the human instinct is to revel in resentment, and that it takes a lot of hard work to lay down the grudge – but that in the end, it might just be worth it.
For most of my generation, there has been no more omnipresent teacher than Fred Rogers. Though I clearly could have used a lesson or two from Mr. Rogers, I seldom visited his Neighborhood as a child, and lacked the emotional connection to his words that so many of my peers carried into the theater with them for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Yet I traipsed through the November chill – all alone – to see Marielle Heller’s third feature. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a very straight-forward story about forgiveness: a man who has held a grudge against his father for decades is slowly coaxed out of his bitterness after being forced to write a profile on Fred Rogers. But Heller makes this simple story into something deeper, imbuing it with a constant appreciation for the value of human connection. The value of stopping to think and feel what others may be experiencing. The value of really – no, really – listening. It’s a subtle and delicate message, but it left me with a kernel of warmth that slowly grew over the following days and weeks. Meaningful connection is the first step toward forgiveness. Because tolerance and mercy are very much not rooted in concepts like fairness or integrity, we must feed them through compassion instead. And that starts with understanding others, and understanding that we all either have or will likely make the same mistake. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood didn’t necessarily teach me that, but it made it real in a way few movies have.
If Mr. Rogers teaches forgiveness with words, Waves preaches compassion with feeling. So many films about tragedies focus on either the before or the after – the build-up to the climactic moment, or the fall-out that comes next. Waves offers both, boldly bifurcating and switching protagonists just over halfway through its runtime. In doing so, it offers something rare to audiences: it makes us feel the anger and resentment that courses through Emily as the story shifts to her perspective, rather than just telling us. We’re mad at Tyler like she is. We’re reeling from the unexpected, just as her family struggles to put the pieces back together. Waves is another deceptively simple story, but in most cases, forgiveness is also deceptively simple. It should not require some long-winded apology. It should not be conditioned on a set of increasingly complex and burdensome acts of contrition. In many cases, as it is with Emily, there is literally nothing Tyler can do to make things right. She just has to make the decision to forgive. Waves taught me that the people around us are necessary pieces in the journey toward that decision. Taylor has her father; Luke has Taylor. Airing our grievances with the people who love us can be an exorcism, forcing us to realization just how exhausting it is to hold on to them in the first place. And those people give us the push to let them go. Waves’ structure mimics the emotional rollercoaster in its audience, granting the catharsis to its characters and viewers simultaneously. It left me out-of-breath and ready to find that same purifying release in my own life. But choosing forgiveness is hard. And where it’s easy to feel emboldened after two hours at the theater, it’s hard to stay in that mindset as the distance grows between our lives and those on the silver screen. Real life does not have an Act 2 climax. Few relationships hinge on single moments of truth. The consequences of our choices are not apparent for years, sometimes decades. At no point at the movies this year did I feel more understood in this hopelessness than during Alma Har’el and Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy. Though my life shares little in common with the one chronicled in Honey Boy, the film’s core is focused on just how difficult – just how painful – forgiveness can be. But that pain is valuable. Unlike other films of 2019, Honey Boy is not quite about an act forgiveness, rather, the entire project is an effort to forgive. It’s unclear whether LaBeouf will be able to fully absolve his father and move past the myriad negative manifestations of his childhood, but nobody can doubt that he is trying. And that, in itself, may have inspired me more than anything else in film this year. Because if he can try, so can I.
And no matter how long it takes, it’s worth it. At the end of everything, all the immediate gratification in the world doesn’t last very long – all we have are our relationships. While not directly about forgiveness or laying down old grudges, Martin Scorsese’s career-capping The Irishman is very much a parable about the futility of hatred and violence. Though I’m not at the point of looking back at my life quite yet, I can’t help but wonder what I’ll see when I eventually do. The Irishman is a gift for young people. It provides the rare chance to take a glimpse into one potential future – one filled with regret and longing for what might have been. Yet for many of us, “it’s what it is” doesn’t have to describe the reluctant, depressing truths of our lives. For me personally, it does not have to describe the relationships that have soured, or the pain that I’ve suffered. I can take heart from the films of 2019 – from Lloyd Vogel’s willingness to change, Fred Rogers’ compassion, Emily Williams’s heart, Ronald Williams’s vulnerability, and Shia LaBeouf’s courage – and I can try to forgive. “You have to lay the grudge down, or it’ll kill you.” It’s the final, hard-earned lesson that Shia LaBeouf takes from his father in Honey Boy. The movies of 2019 brought me a little closer to laying mine down.