I never cry at films, in fact for several years I also never cried outside of films. It was a point of pride when I would sit, unmoved and irritated through the films that made my friends tear up: My Sister’s Keeper, Titanic, anything based on a Nicholas Sparks book. They would go see these films with the intent of being moved to tears. There was a current of masochism in this kind of watching, as every single one of these films does (must) include loss.
I'll admit I seem to be getting softer as I get older: I teared at Amy and again, and somewhat bafflingly, at an scene from RuPaul's Drag Race.
The contemporary melodrama, or the weepy, is one of the most critically marginalized film genres and tends to be thought of as a saccharine and shallow indulgence for women (one review gives this film the lukewarm, dismissive approval: it’s good enough to watch with your girlfriends at home on a weekend). I hovered at the entrance of Specter and again at Room but I resolutely marched myself into a 3pm screening of Miss You Already determined to give the genre a fair and objective shot.
I was anticipating an excess of emotion, of the weeping that gives the genre it’s name, of "soft-core emotional porn for women" as Ann Douglas calls it in her essay "Soft-Porn Culture". But I didn't find excess of that kind of emotion, when faced with something sad the two characters tend to laugh sooner than cry (director Catherine Hardwicke: “Every single time a character cried, I’m like, ‘OK, cut that out of the script.’” ). Instead I was struck by an entirely different excess.
Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) are best friends from childhood who have grown up to careers and husbands and children. This film is ostensibly about female friendships but it still makes extensive lip service to hetero romance. The two women's marriages are given depth, narrative arc and ample screen time. Their friendship does get a few symbolic wins: Milly rushes to Jess’ bedside as she gives birth (Jess’ husband is notedly absent) and it is Jess, not Milly's husband, who is sleeping next to her when she dies. But the moment he enters the room Jess leaves the bed; she knows her place in the hierarchy of human relationships
The other night I stayed over at a friend's place, I had stayed late because we wanted to keep talking. She lent me PJs and put on her mouthguard. We said boys were really missing out by not allowing themselves platonic sleepovers. In the morning we put on our makeup together and went shopping for a dress for her sister's wedding.
The weepy is about familial relationships between women, and is so invested in the primacy and intensity of these relationships it'll kill off one of its players to prove it. Their audience is women who have mothers, daughters or sisters; typically biological, but also chosen. The grief of losing a loved one is universal, the intense preoccupation with interpersonal relationships is feminine. And this is specifically why the weepy attracts an audience and attracts derision from critics.
But Miss You Already did not strike me as universal because the character's economic situations are specific, in fact, elite. Milly works in PR and is wealthy and Jess works for an NGO and is not. Their financial disparities are mentioned but hardly meaningful; they both have improbably beautiful homes, they eat in expensive restaurants, they are surrounded by objects in vivid colors and rich textures, and their hair is thick and shiny. Their lives are devoted to pleasure and comfort; a kind of editorial lifestyle that requires money and the illusion of personal style. But no amount of good taste could save Milly from cancer and its gruesome toll on her body. At least she gets to live out her final days in an exorbitantly luxurious hospice.
Most, if not all weepies revolve around the upper middle class to wealthy; or at least a middle class so photogenic it translates a tax bracket higher. Is this necessary for the audience's sympathy, for the coveted tears? Is it true, as New York Times film reviewer, A. O. Scott, claims that "Those trappings [of bourgeois subjectivity] of course, are part of what make characters in movies interesting"? A friend of mine agreed: it's these things that make characters relatable, that make them seem human.
After all, isn't romantic love also a bourgeois trapping?
Another friend talks to me about the shows she watches that revolve around people who are poor, and it seems to me that these shows are about poverty or at least their poverty is a part of the tone, the irony, the plot. Wealth is stealthier, we don't notice it, it passes unmentioned. Wealth's specificity is ironed out by claims to universality. Watching this display of wealth is pleasurable to the audience, and perhaps we resent when that pleasure is usurped in texts about poor people, like the way I resent having to sit through a Dardenne brothers film.
Maybe I have trouble sympathizing with Milly because she is rich, or maybe, and this may be monstrous, I think of cancer as a random force, one that doesn't possess agency and so cannot be resented. Indeed, the poor and the wealthy are just as likely to get cancer (the poor get different kinds, and are more likely to die from it). I also have trouble feeling sympathy when natural disaster strikes, and this is monstrous considering I live in a geologically and climatically stable part of the world. The affliction of disease and disaster might be random but the chance one can heal and recover is rooted in economics.
My grandmother died of lung cancer, she had never been a smoker. If I stopped smoking, my lungs will be pink again in ten years.
I didn't cry at Miss You Already, I didn't get close. I hope this is a failure of the film and not a failure of mine.