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This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

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Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

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Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

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Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help — really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film — and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

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So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

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Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

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Here’s something you don’t often see onscreen: a woman who doesn’t cover up the fact that her hair has thinned.

Lidia Bastianich is PBS’s Italian cooking maven whose show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen (she also has spinoffs like Lidia’s Italy), always marks the difference between the overly personality-driven Food Channel shows and PBS. To wit: she doesn’t do anything to cover up her thinning hair. For comparison, let’s look at the Food Channel’s Giada de Laurentiis:

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Any normal human might find a contrast between these two women absurd. Be assured I’m not trying to draw a conclusion about their respective talents for cooking — just their comparative screen appearance. (We could also discuss Giada’s obviously spectacular breasts and/or that alarming set of teeth, but let’s try to stay focused.) I just want to make the point that it is amazing to me that even good old PBS hasn’t forced Lidia into a wig. (What do I know? They may have tried.)

I got onto this subject originally because the subject of hair kept coming up in strange and interesting contexts. There was Callista Gingrich, Newt Gingrich’s wife, whose immovable helmet of hair preoccupied so many bloggers last year. Perhaps because I’m a big fan of natural hair for Black women, I have read several other bloggers who yearn publicly for Michelle Obama to stop relaxing/ironing her hair.

I’d been collecting a random assortment of hair moments onscreen for a while, but it was a comment over at JB’s terrific film blog, The Fantom Country, that gave my post clarity. Writing about how many times he’d noticed Andrew Garfield’s luscious hair, JB wrote wryly, “Perhaps he is a particularly expressive hair actor” — why, it’s comments like these that make my blog so resoundingly esoteric. (See also posts on noses, mouths, and teeth.) Esoteric it may be, but it’s my confirmed opinion that hair is an easy site for the downfall of a film or character.

BridgesLet’s start with a few actors who consistently make their hair work pretty goddamn well. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in just about as many different hair parts as one can imagine, and they always work for me — even (especially?) when he shaved his head for the bad-guy role in Iron Man. Bridges has this way of truly appearing to be one with his hair; whether it’s the shaggy Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) or the long-haired ex-con in American Heart (1992, below), the hair seems fully folded in with the rest of him. It’s perhaps not a surprise that an actor like Bridges, who conceals so much of his acting craft behind his prodigious modesty and naturalness, would be able to handle these hair parts so effortlessly.

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Other actors, it seems, grow into their hair. I never thought much of Connie Britton as a younger woman — on the rare occasions I ever caught that Michael J. Fox show Spin City (1996-2000) I mainly thought of her as The Hair — but now that she’s in her 40s she has gotten better roles and more gravitas. I just loved what she did with her role as Mrs. Coach/Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights (2006-2011); one never forgot how she rocked those strawberry waves, but it seemed so fully in keeping with the role. I still haven’t caught up with her new show Nashville (2012- ) despite the regular reports from blogger friend JustMeMike that I have to keep archiving for reading later. But Britton’s hair in the Nashville country music scene? It’s a hair marriage made in heaven. Connie-Britton-Lights_610

On occasion one finds an actor whose hair was so integral to her character onscreen that they become inseparable. Surely the best example one can imagine is Judy Davis’ breakout role in My Brilliant Career (1979). As Sybylla Melvyn, a teenager yearning for something beyond marriage and motherhood in turn-of-the-century New South Wales, her hair exemplified her character. Frizzy, irrepressible, flyaway, and heavy with impossibility — it fit so perfectly with Davis’s plain, freckled face and her terrific intelligence that it’s impossible to think of that role being taken on by anyone else.

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Judy Davis in The Eye of the Storm (2011)

A note: I’ve been disappointed to see that Davis rarely shows that hair anymore. Like so many women, she now keeps it straightened and severely managed. I still can’t see her onscreen without wondering where her hair went.

There are occasions when an actor with forgettable hair takes on a great hair part. The best example I can think of is from last year’s Prometheus (2012): Michael Fassbender’s turn as the creepy robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). It’s one thing to admire O’Toole’s brassy, glinty-eyed heroism; it’s another to emulate his hair. What a nice touch that was. One couldn’t look at Fassbender throughout the film without seeing the robot’s own self-consciousness of carrying that carefully coiffed hair — hair that symbolized so much.

Click on this image of Fassbender and you’ll get a nice .gif of the hair regimen.

tumblr_mbuanjTQWe1ri08goo1_500Sadly, it’s more common that I notice hair more like Andrew Garfield’s — hair so demanding that it ought to have separate billing. Pushy, greedy hair; hair that demands a little too much screen time.

Yes: I am speaking of Merida’s hair in Brave (2012). Yes: I loved what the illustrators did with this. But yes: it took over.

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Nor is this a fault limited to animators. Why, just last week I complained about Jessica Chastain’s hair in Zero Dark Thirty — what was wrong with those hair people on set? If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s how (cough) the rigors of personal hygiene and grooming have a tendency to drop away when one is single-mindedly working on a problem and scrutinizing the evidence. Por ejemplo: I’m sitting here right now on a Sunday afternoon, furiously typing a blog post about hair and movies, having not even run a comb through my hair all day. This is how us ladies behave when we’re focused. We do not fuss with ‘dos like this:

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(And honestly, the movie wasn’t about some nice lady professor who keeps a blog. Chastain’s character went to black sites to witness torture of detainees! She sat around in a dreary cubicle at a CIA outpost in Pakistan! Argh.)

I have to conclude with a big hair role that stymies me: Penelope Cruz’s mane in Nine (2009). It’s so absurdly great that, for me, it veers between unbelievable and some kind of parasitic being from another planet that has attached itself to her beautiful head. I mean, us ladies have a lot to envy when it comes to Cruz, but nowhere does her hair appear to such effect than here, teased and streaked to the point that it ought to have its own life insurance and bodyguards. Just watch this sexpot number unfolding in the imagination of Daniel Day Lewis:

See what I mean? it’s just so much hair that every time I see this scene I wonder if the hair & makeup people actually added more to her head to enhance the excess of it all as she shakes it all over Lewis’s body. No wonder so many of us fantasize about sex and hair — criminey, see here for the definition of fetish. 

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As with all my most esoteric pieces, I can only hope that my hair fixation rubs off on you and you start to scrutinize the hair acting of all your favorite/hated actors. And when you do, I hope you post a comment about the people I’ve forgotten, the great hair roles of yesteryear, and the Hair Aliens Attack parts that I need to watch.

Which reminds me. Jennifer Aniston: greatest or worst hair actor of all time?

brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

If you’ve been paying attention to the critics, they’ve been preoccupied with two things about Brave: whether Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is gay, and whether we ought to complain that Pixar’s first girl-oriented film still makes its heroine be a princess.

And thus they miss the point. The radical thing about this film is that it up-ends the mother-daughter relationship in film.

There is nothing more overdetermined than the mother-daughter relationship in film. So many of them are fraught in predictable ways that assume all manner of things about middle-aged→ older women and their younger counterparts. Take a look at children’s film and it only gets more extreme. All those wicked stepmothers in fairy tales set the stage for the kind of mother trouble we see. (No wonder so many films kill off mothers right away; I’m lookin’ at you, Bambi.) How can the girl/ young woman thrive if her mother is still there being bossy and/or needy?

Which is why Brave is so cool. It starts from a fraught mother-daughter situation and then up-ends the trope entirely. It’s fantastic.

I’m not going to spoil it for you — the film is too delightful for spoilers — but let me say that Brave is also somehow about narratives and tropes in a way that The Neverending Story (1984) was. It’s meta, but only meta in ways that offer 10-yr-old kids a little bit more than their younger siblings will get, and offer parents a kind of delicious message on their own. It’s not ironic, reference-laden meta like my new favorite show Community. It’s refreshing.

The ways that Merida and her mother (Emma Thompson) have to change … well, that narrative ultimately says something about how just as stories can trap us into a hoary set of conventional outcomes, so they can also free us.

I love the way the film shows Merida’s father and his buddies all sitting around drinking, telling stories about great (past) adventures, while Merida and her mother are off having an actual adventure that changes everything. Fantastic.

Brave is not just a Pixar film with a female lead (two female leads, really), but one about a girl who doesn’t want to be told how to act, how to live her life. Merida wears dresses and likes to shoot arrows. She has long, gorgeous hair but wears it in a big mess of a red tangle. She runs and jumps and acts exuberantly rather than behave like a lady, as her mother desires. She finishes her father’s stories and can’t breathe in a corset. Most of all she doesn’t want to get married off to one of the three eldest sons of neighboring clan leaders.

So critics started a conversation about whether she’s gay.

“Because,” as Stephen Colbert put it nicely on last week’s Colbert Report, “any 15-yr-old girl who rejects an arranged marriage has got to be gay.”

Is it so radical for a girl to just want to be herself — before being crammed into other roles, like girlfriend, wife, gay, straight, tomboy, girlie-girl? Is it so radical to allow her to not define herself according to hoary stereotypes?

What is wrong with us that we’re so eager to slot children into sexual boxes? Is it so hard to fathom that some kids just don’t want to be sexual creatures yet? That some kids’ gender identities don’t fit into molds, and that those gender identities don’t necessarily signal anything about who they will want to sleep with down the road?

Now, I realize I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to watching media with a queer eye — when I sang the praises of the feminist potential of the Women’s World Cup last summer, it was partly because “whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many female players have embraced butch haircuts or personal styles that signify at least tomboyness if not queerness — and this is good both for gay rights and for helping to blur a gay/straight binary.” I loved The Celluloid Closet for its analysis of how, in an era during which homosexuality was erased from film narratives, viewers scoured early American films for the slightest, tiniest evidence (clothing, effeminacy, a snippet of dialogue) that a character might be gay.

But hello, that was about adults.

Is it the most radical thing to allow kids to not be sexual — to allow them to express their gender freely without leaping to conclusions about what their gender performance signals about their sexual orientation?

I’m thinking here about my sister, who dressed as a tomboy till she was about 15. No, she’s not trans. No, she’s not gay. She just liked dressing as a tomboy. She wasn’t interested in playing any kind of boyfriend game just yet. Get over it.

What’s the deal with Scottish accents in American children’s movies? Let’s list them:

  • The villagers and lesser characters in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) all have Scottish accents, while the leads have posh British accents (excepting the Huntsman, our working-class hero).
  • When they filmed Tintin (2011), voice artist Andy Serkis gave Captain Haddock a Scottish accent, prompting outrage from fans of the books. It should be noted that while some fans protested that Haddock was portrayed as Cornish in the books, others pointed out that actually he was Belgian, as was the books’ author Hergé, and had only been translated as Cornish by the English publisher.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was full of Scottish accents – inexplicably, as one presumes the film was about Vikings (who were Norse).
  • Shrek (2001) had a Scottish accent – reportedly because voice artist Mike Myers wanted to use the same accent as his mother, who’d read children’s books to him in that voice.
  • The entire cast of Brave (2012) have Scottish accents. Of course, in this case the characters are actually Scots, wearing kilts and all.

Qu’est-ce que c’est? Why so many Scottish accents in American children’s films?

Maybe it’s because Americans find Scottish accents to be funny and/or eccentric? less snooty-sounding than posh English? gruff and good-hearted?

Have we come to associate weird oldey-times with Scottish accents as well as funny clothes?

Or has it just become a weird tic in Hollywood?

It’s hard to figure the genealogy of this trend, as I doubt many children today would make cultural references back to Scotty of Star Trek — or to late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, for that matter, or Trainspotting.

I found an article from the Journal of Sociolinguistics that posits that among English respondents in a large study, Scottish accents ranked almost as high for “social attractiveness” as Received Pronunciation (what I call “posh”), even though these accents didn’t rank nearly as high when it came to “prestige.”* So it’s not just Americans, apparently, who find the accent appealing.

Still, I’m baffled. Ideas? Comments?

And what does it mean that a generation of English-speaking children will grow up associating a Scottish accent with children’s films?

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*Nickolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop, “Ideologized Values for British Accents,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 11, 1 (2007): 74-93.

So I have this 5-yr-old niece who would love The Secret World of Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti). She’s got a twin brother and an older sister who take after their father — blonde, loud, socially charming, hyperactive. In contrast, this one is her mother’s child: dark-haired, quiet and imaginative, and prone to artistic focus for hours at a time. She would be entranced by the slow-moving beauty this film displays, because she’s very little, although not quite as small as Arrietty.I can’t help but watch Arrietty with a sense of regret. Hayao Miyazaki didn’t direct this film, but his hand is all over it as screenwriter, production planner, and having the whole thing done via his Ghibli Studios. Miyazaki refuses to make those computer-animated, jacked-up, and over-caffeinated films that fill theaters. In fact, our theater prefaced this film with at least ten previews for kids’ movies — Brave, Mirror Mirror, The Lorax, and The Pirates (a new claymation film by the Wallace and Gromit people) most notable among them — all supercharged and moving so quickly you feel like you’re missing half the action. In contrast, Arrietty takes its time, lets you pay savor every beautiful, hand-drawn and colored shot. The down side: it can get a little dull. Also: the dialogue can get pretty creaky for people over the age of 5. But mostly: it’s not weird, like Miyazaki’s best films, such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001).

Arrietty is based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), a book I remember only loosely — but what a great idea for little kids. Arrietty and her parents are tiny people who live under the floorboards of a country house. They are borrowers — that is, they take little bits of things that the family will never notice, like a sugar cube, pins, tissues, a bit of string, and only things that allow them to survive. It’s a kind of big fish/ little fish symbiosis scenario premised on a couple of things: they must borrow without being seen, and if they cease to be secret, they must move away to a new house. What child wouldn’t want to think of a tiny family cobbling together a mirror house underneath your own, and stealing a postage stamp or a fish hook here & there to make life a little easier?

It’s a strange film to see as an adult, as it’s really more appropriate for small children. Arrietty’s parents are voiced recognizably by Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, two of the funniest people in show business, but they’re weirdly low-energy and unfunny. It’s as if they’ve received mild lobotomies, which distracted me from the story — even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to think so much about the voices behind the characters. There’s also a prevailing sense of sadness in the tale that works together with the film’s slowness and visual wonder. Sadness because the boy Shawn arrives at the house to prepare for his upcoming heart surgery while feeling neglected by his busy professional mother; and sadness because Shawn spots Arrietty, offers her the gift of a sugar cube, and gradually becomes friends with her, making it necessary that the borrowers leave their lovely house for parts unknown.

Sadness is a strange mood to prevail over such a lovely film. I love what the Ghibli filmmakers decided to do in creating this world: although the characters big and small are all obvious cartoons, the backdrops are beautifully realistic, if idealized. When Arrietty climbs the ivy up the side of the house, the ivy is portrayed in all its colorful, light-filled, twisted majesty. The camera occasionally scans a meadow full of flowers and bugs. Or it scans upward to watch light coming through the leaves of a tall tree. For tiny children, such scenes must be even more entrancing than for adults — a reminder to observe the world around you with even more attention in case you might catch a glimpse of a tiny girl in a red dress, slipping amongst the leaves.

But for the rest of us Miyazaki fans, it’s beautiful yet disappointing and oddly tame. What I love about his sometimes ponderous films is the way they take strange turns, display strange and dark motivations, and feature female characters who must address scary situations they’re not really prepared for, either emotionally or physically. At times, as in Spirited Away, the girl is not even very likeable for a while. Considering that Arrietty clocks in at a tidy 94 minutes (speedy by Ghibli standards), it’s kind of boring.

As much as I found myself disappointed by the film, I’ve got it on my list for the next time I see my little niece, who has all manner of weird things going on in her little mind. She’ll love it. It might even be one of those films that hits her quiet 5-yr-old mind in that way that means something beyond the shape of the actual film. Because really, how do we know how film works the way it does? How do we know what will stick in our minds as meaningful long after the fact?