Three “Best Picture” Films That Subvert Conventional Journey Arcs

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Now that over one third of the world has been ordered to stay at home unless they are working in essential services, people are watching a lot of movies. So, we thought this would be a good time to update the Heroine’s Journey Project Drama and Film page and to offer our thoughts on three recent Academy Award winning films, Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Parasite, that challenge conventional journey arcs.

The 2016 Best Picture winner is a three-part coming-of-age drama about Chiron, an African American boy in Miami, Florida who wrestles with bullying over his sexuality and with a pervasive drug culture neighborhood. Chiron in Part I of Moonlight

 

In Part 1, a Cuban drug dealer finds Chiron, who has been dubbed “Little,” hiding from a group of bullies in a crack house. The drug dealer, Juan, takes Chiron to his own house where he and Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, make up a spare bed for Chiron.  When Juan returns Chiron to his mother the next morning, Chiron’s mother, Paula, punishes the boy for worrying her although she is an addict and often out later herself. Juan and Chiron continue to spend time with each other and Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. When Juan sees Paula smoking crack with one of his customers, he berates her for being addicted and neglecting her son.  Paula lashes back at Juan for having sold her crack in the first place. She suggests she knows why Chiron is bullied by his peers, saying he walks like a girl. The next day Chiron tells Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother and asks what “faggot” means. In a surprising departure from machismo, Juan describes it as “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” He tell Chiron that it’s okay to be gay and that he shouldn’t let others bother him. Chiron asks Juan whether he’s really a drug dealer and leaves when Juan answers truthfully.  In short, in Part I, the film evokes and shatters masculine stereotypes, mixing objectification (Juan vis a vis his customers) with sympathy (for Chiron), indifference (Juan’s attitude as a crack dealer) with tenderness (for Chiron and Teresa), denial and bravado (in drug dealing scenes) with perspective and sociological imagination (Juan on the beach with Chiron).

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In Part II of the film, the plot seesaws between increasing cruelty and powerless good intentions. Juan has died and the teen-aged Chiron spends his time trying to escape bullying at school and with Juan’s nurturing former girlfriend, Teresa. Chiron’s mother’s crack addiction progresses and she more openly abuses Chiron, begging and threatening him for money for a fix.  A classmate, Kevin, is Chiron’s only friend. One night Kevin sees Chiron at the beach, and they smoke a joint let down their defenses, talk, and then kiss. Kevin masturbates a shy Chiron. The next day the leader of the school bullies threatens Chiron, and Kevin is manipulated into punching Chiron, believing that this will save Chiron from a worse fate. When Chiron refuses to surrender to Kevin’s punching the gang beats up Kevin. The next day an enraged Chiron smashes a chair over the bully’s head. The police arrive, and Chiron is sent to a juvenile hall. Rather than meeting and succeeding at increasing difficult obstacles as would happen in a hero’s journey, Chiron is caught in  downward spiral in which neither he, nor sympathetic others, can protect him.

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In Part III, machismo faces off against emotional connection and reality. Chiron, now a much larger, muscular adult, goes by the nickname of “Black.” After being released from prison, he becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta.  His mother, much the worse for wear, now lives in a treatment center. One day he receives a call from his old friend Kevin who invites him to visit if Chiron is ever in Miami.  Chiron visits his mother and tells her he is dealing drugs. His mother expresses regret and apologizes for not loving him when he needed it most and tells him she loves him even if he does not love her back. Later Chiron drives to Miami to visit Kevin, who now works as a cook at a diner. Kevin tells him he has a child by an ex-girlfriend and although the relationship is over, he enjoys acting as a father. When Kevin asks him about his life, Chiron is silent. Chiron asks Kevin why he called and Kevin plays a song on the juke box that he says reminds him of Chiron. After Kevin serves him dinner, they return to Kevin’s apartment.  Kevin tells Chiron he is happy although his life didn’t turn out as he had thought. Chiron then breaks down and admits that he hasn’t been intimate with anybody since their encounter years earlier. Kevin comforts him and they embrace. Although the could suggest a happy ending, the film rejects the easy ending. Instead, the film closes with a flashback of young Chrion standing, alone, on a beach looking at the ocean where Juan taught him to swim, and where, later, he and Kevin would kiss. The beach may signify that it is still possible for Chiron to choose again, to envision a different future, but he is standing alone. There’s no suggestion that such change would be glamorous, quick, or easy.

 

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Shape of Water, the 2017 Best Picture winner, is a dark fantasy about a mute young female cleaner, Elisa Esposito, who works at a high security government laboratory where she falls in love with a humanoid-like amphibian creature.

Elisa, who was found abandoned by the side of a river with wounds on her neck as a child, communicates through sign language. In the laboratory she begins to visit the Amphibian Man and non-verbally communicates with him. When she learns that his keepers (an American researcher and a Soviet spy posing as a researcher) plan to harm the Amphibian Man, she persuades her next door neighbor to help her save the creature. They plan to release him back into the ocean, but Elisa must bring him to her apartment until it rains and the canal that leads to the ocean is open. Various complications and a somewhat bizarre sex scene (unless one views the film as metaphor) ensue, and viewers discover that the Amphibian Man has magical healing powers. The laboratory researchers discover the Amphibian man is missing and chase Elisa and her neighbor to the canal where they are about to release the Amphibian Man. The lab researchers shoot the Amphibian Man and Elisa, but he is able to heal himself in time to slash the shooter’s throat and jump into the canal with Elisa. Underwater, the scars on Elisa’s neck open to gills, and Elisa and the Amphibian Man embrace.

In the voice-over narration, the next door neighbor states that he believes Elisa and the Amphibian Man lived “happily ever after in love.” Because the neighbor can’t really know what happens after Elisa and the creature sink into the ocean,  the story can be interpreted as a hero’s journey in which two misfits find themselves and have a “happily-ever-after” conclusion, or as Elisa dying while trying to save a “creature” that will never be accepted in the world, or as Elisa and the creature attempting to flee (successfully or unsuccessfully) a world into which they will never fit. As a fairy tale, The Shape of Water follows the conventional hero’s journey arc. To the extent that one views the film as metaphor, the story can also be interpreted as a heroine’s journey metaphor in which Elisa is pursuing wholeness whether one interprets the Amphibian Man as an aspect of Elisa (and following Maureen Murdock’s heroine’s journey arc) or as a separate outcast who supports rebirth of Elisa’s true full creature self (Victoria’s Schmidt’s heroine’s journey arc).

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Parasite, the 2019 winner and first non-English language film to win Best Picture, is a dark “thriller” directed by Bong Joon-ho (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Jin-won).  The movie follows the lives of a poor South Korean family of four, the Kim Family, who live in a small basement apartment and are trying to survive on low-paying temporary jobs. A friend of the twentyish- year-old son, Ki-woo, suggests that Ki-woo take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family.  Once he is hired as tutor, Ki-woo sees additional opportunities that could come from working for the Parks. He helps his sister, Ki-jeong, pose as an art therapist to secure a job as counselor for the Parks’ hyper-active son. Ki-jeong then gets the Parks’ chauffeur fired, and the Kims’ father takes over as the new chauffeur. They then get Parks’ housekeeper’ fired, and the mother becomes the new housekeeper. Although the Kims’ rise in fortune looks something like a Hero’s journey and they sporadically see themselves in that light, the father continually disavows any plan or vision of sustained success.

Sure enough, when the Parks go on a camping trip and the Kim family assembles in the Park’s home to revel in the luxuries of the mansion, the former housekeeper returns and reveals that her husband has been living in a secret bunker below the house built by the prior owner. The original housekeeper and her husband’s deception are eerily similar to the the Kims’ who keep their own family basement living arrangements a secret from the Parks. After bad weather disrupts the camping trip, the Parks return home early and a melee breaks out in the Parks’ house. After several more plot turns in which a member of the Parks family, the Kim family, and the original staff’s family are killed, the movie ends in the Kims’ basement apartment where the son, Ki-woo, is writing a letter to his father, vowing to earn enough money to purchase the Park’s house, set him free, and reunite the family. Although the actor who played Ki-woo has suggested in interviews that he believes this could happen,images

Parasite’s director has stated that he believes Ki-woo’s dream is only a fantasy and that the story’s characters end up where they started.  Each family is “parasitically” dependent on the other as they focus on getting ahead; each family loses some of its members but gets nowhere. There is no economic/class journey arc because both families end up where they started (minus a member) and no one seems the wiser for having lived their story. The beauty of Parasite, is that it takes our natural (or at least conventional) inclination to expect that the story will become a Hero’s Journey (underdog wins) or a cathartic Tragedy (greedy characters get what they deserve) and teases and then frustrates our expectations while provoking us to reckon with class inelasticity both literally and metaphorically.

Although the majority of the winning films follow the Hero’s Journey pattern, there has been a significant increase in Heroine Journey films in recent years. More recently, film makers have also gravitated toward making movies that involve ambiguous journeys (The Shape of Water) or resist concluding a journey arc (Moonlight and Parasite). We believe this trend is based on an increasing recognition of the complexity of an interconnected global world and the legitimacy of multiple perspectives. We’d love to hear from our blog readers on what films you have been watching that follow a Heroine’s Journey, include multiple journeys, or provide variations on a journey arc as a meta-statement on the content of the movie.

The Heroine’s Journey of Viola Price

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance Nancer Ballard.


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.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Whoopi-GoldbergAt 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.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Ving-Rhames 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.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Tichina-Arnold-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Kimberly-EliseThe 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.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Mekhi-Phifer-Kimberly-Elise-Anika-Noni-Rose-Ving-Rhames-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Tichina-ArnoldBefore 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.”

Is Divergent a Hero’s Journey or a Heroine’s Journey?

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


The 2014 film Divergent (a loose adaptation of the first book in the young adult dystopian series of the same name by Veronica Roth) follows sixteen year old Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she navigates crises of self-identification and political conspiracies. In the film’s futuristic version of Chicago, citizens are separated into factions based on defining traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery). Some members of the society, however, are categorized as Divergent, meaning they have behavioral elements which correspond to more than one faction and as a result they are perceived as threats to the carefully organized system. Of course, our protagonist Tris happens to fall into this latter category.

Tris is assaulted by three masked attackers. Upon unmasking one of them, she realizes it is one of her closest friends. Her sense of betrayal is immediately apparent.

The film presents many of the same aspects of the novel that could be categorized as touchstones of a Heroine’s Journey. Tris, as a Divergent, seeks a sense of wholeness that her fragmented society denies her. She leaves home and the comfort of her mother’s unconditional love to pursue a life in the predominantly male Dauntless faction. She is betrayed by someone she had believed to be a good friend when he attempts to sexually assault her, which fundamentally shakes her worldview.

In repackaging the narrative as an action film, however, Tris’s emotional journey is weakened and her action-based journey becomes the main focus. This shift in perspective causes the film to be read most easily as a typical Hero’s Journey. Tris begins the film in the Ordinary World of her life in Abnegation, unaware of the existence of Divergents. Once she takes the requisite placement test all sixteen year olds must take, her Call to Adventure occurs when she is forced to choose between factions and expected to choose to remain in Abnegation. Her Refusal of the Call is quite clear: she chooses to leave.

Tris undergoes a typical training sequence with her mentor/romantic interest Four.

Upon arriving in Dauntless, she has a Meeting the Mentor moment when she meets a Dauntless leader named Four (Theo James), who takes her under his wing as he is himself an Abnegation-to-Dauntless transfer. (He will also become her love interest, despite the sizable age difference the film adds. In the novel, there is a year or two between them; in the film, it is closer to eight years.) Tris Crosses the Threshold into a New World when she begins engaging in Dauntless training, quickly Meeting Tests (physical fights that she initially loses), Allies (a few friends such as Al, Will, Christina, and Uriah), and Enemies (the bloodthirsty Peter and Eric).

She suffers an emotional Death when she is assaulted by Peter and Al, but this Death results in her Rebirth as a stronger, hardened member of Dauntless. Along the way, she learns of the plan to wipe out her former faction Abnegation by the intercession of her brother, with whom she is supposed to have no contact. This fear drives her for much of the film, and when it becomes clear that the Erudite faction intends to do much more than just wipe out the Abnegation by means of mind-controlled Dauntless soldiers, her status as Divergent allows her to escape unharmed. She ultimately proves victorious and Seizes the Sword while engaging in a battle with the Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), whom she stabs and then injects with the same mind-control serum the leader used on the Dauntless.

By the film’s end, Tris’s journey is far from over, but with three films remaining in the series, it is clear that Hollywood intends to present her journey as a female Hero’s instead of as a Heroine’s.