The difference between a hero’s journey and a heroine’s journey is often where the story spends its time and where and how it ends. Hero’s journey films and books usually end with a moment of glory although in actual life the glorious moment may have been followed by a long-period of struggle and maladjustment to life after glory that evolves over time into a broader and deeper recognition of life’s complexities. Given the attention given to some recent hero’s journey films such as American Sniper and Unbroken, we’d like to discuss an interesting heroine’s journey film.
In the 2014 television movie A Day Late and a Dollar Short, based on the 2001 Terry McMillan novel of the same name, a dying woman seeks to provide the members of her dysfunctional family with a guide for living with compassion. Her goal is not mastery, or creating fairy tale endings, or a erecting a personal monument, but to positively contribute to those who will outlive her. The journey of Viola Price (Whoopi Goldberg) follows Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey path. Using compassion and empathy, Viola seeks to help her family members while she’s alive and after she’s gone while recognizing the limits of her control. The story also depicts complex conflicts that cannot be resolved in a fairy tale manner because there have already been consequences.
At the beginning of the film, Viola lives in the Illusion of a (semi) Perfect World. She lives with her long term husband, Cecil (Ving Rhames) and dreams of traveling to Paris. This dream quickly shatters. After suffering a severe asthma attack she receives news from her doctor that she has congestive heart failure and that another asthma attack could kill her. This news brings the Realization that her coping strategy of dreaming of a brighter future in Paris cannot save her and that she must figure out what is important to do in the time she has left.
Upon realizing that her time is limited, Viola undergoes an Awakening and Preparing for the Journey be realizing that she must try to heal family competitions and strife before she’s gone. “There’s a whole lot of mess I gotta clean up before I go,” she says in one early moment in the film. “I can’t have them killing each other after I’m gone.” Her worries are well-founded, for it quickly becomes apparent that the large Price family is falling apart at the seams. Each family member presents a great challenge to her which she is determined to overcome through sheer force of will.
Then Cecil walks out on her for a woman who is younger than their children. In her Descent, Viola discovers that the other woman is pregnant, which causes her to ask how long the affair has been going on. She is also worried that Cecil will abandon their troubled family for a new one once she’s gone.
In what is a small measure of success, Viola successfully convinces Cecil to reconnect with his children. At a party she also learns that his mistress appears to have been pregnant for longer than Cecil says he has been going out with her, and that she may have told him he was the father in order to give her child a father but the baby may not be his. Viola doesn’t gloat upon her small taste of success; instead, upon seeing how much Cecil cares for this other woman, she encourages him to make things work with her.
Meanwhile, their adult children’s personal and relationship difficulties continue to sprial downward. The oldest daughter, Charlotte (Tichina Arnold), is bossy, overworked, and angry. Viola sees herself in Charlotte and worries about the future of her daughter’s marriage when she witnesses Charlotte snapping at her husband. She encourages Charlotte to be more attentive which leads Charlotte to realize that her husband is sneaking around. Charlotte has forgiven her husband for a prior affair on the condition that he mend his ways, but she finds him meeting secretly with his prior mistress.
Viola’s second daughter, Paris (Anika Noni Rose), is an anxiety-ridden, pill popping television host who is also a single parent that has given up on sex and romantic love, and has a troublesome seventeen year old son. Paris and the oldest daughter, Charlotte, also have a highly contentious relationship Hoping to ease some of her rigidity, Viola introduces Paris to a handsome gardener who works in the neighborhood. He shares many of Paris’s interests and has also been through pill addiction of his own, but Charlotte wants nothing to do with him. When she learns her son has gotten his sixteen year old girlfriend pregnant, she appears on the edge of another relapse.
The youngest Price daughter, Janelle (Kimberly Elise), is flighty, clueless, and headstrong. A remarried widow and mother to a reactive fifteen year old, Shanice, she cannot see her daughter’s pain, although Viola quickly notices Shanice’s diversionary behavior and finds indications of self-harm. Shanice, as it turns out, is being molested by Janelle’s new husband. Janelle throws her husband out but does not win over her daughter by doing so.
The only son in the family, Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), is an unemployed, divorced alcoholic who often gets arrested for petty crimes . Viola feels great remorse about the fact that he has been characterized as a wasted genius his entire life and the feeling that she “failed [him] as a mother.” If Viola does not quite believe that all if lost, moviegoers certainly have; this family’s trials seem too profound for a positive outcome.
Support for Viola’s mission takes many incremental forms When Lewis unwittingly stumbles upon the funeral plans that Viola has been preparing in secret, he follows through with her request that he spend more time with his son and learns that his son is being beaten by his ex-wife’s new husband. Although he initially makes the ill-advised move of attacking the stepfather, a violation of his probation, the film suggests that he will learn from his mistakes and take a larger role in his son’s life. Charlotte who is initially furious when she thinks her husband has been seeing his old mistress learns that the other woman had a child as a result of their affair, and that her husband has been helping to support the child. And Paris begins to soften and edge toward a relationship with the sober gardener.
Before any of the repairing is complete, Viola dies. But after she has passed, it is revealed that she left a series of letters that the quarreling family members are instructed to read to one another (Paris to Charlotte, Shanice to Janelle, and Cecil to Lewis). Each letter has been written to inspire both recipient and reader to view the other in a different light. For example, in the letter read by Paris, Viola views Charlotte’s husband’s responsibility to his out-of-wedlock son as a sign of growing maturity and responsibiity rather than as a threat to their relationship. Viola urges Paris to trust her son’s feelings for his girlfriend as Viola trusted Paris when she, too, became pregnant at a young age. After each has had their Moment of Truth from Viola Cecil open his letter from Viola in which she writes, “I’m leaving this wayward family to you. You’re in charge now.” In the end, loving relationship and difficult realities are united, and relationship f appears to have the upper hand. The film intercuts the reading of these letters with shots of the family embracing one another, caring for one another. Viola, now as spirit, observes, “I don’t know if all this hugging and kissing you’re looking at is what will be or what I hope will be. But either way? It’s a beautiful thing.”