Top Four 2020/2021 Films on Elderhood and Aging
by Jim Vanden Bosch
Many feature films that deal with elderhood and aging wallow in stereotypical and outdated views of the experience of elderhood. Not only do these films miss the mark of being an authentic representation of elderhood, but they are also often overbearing and artistically weak. Thankfully, there were some notable exceptions to this in the years 2020 and 2021. Here is my list of four exceptional films that deal with elderhood and aging in an authentic and artistically creative way.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
With a title like that, along with the film’s brief description on IMDb and other movie databases, I was dubious about what kind of film this would be. But when I watched it, I was deeply drawn in from the very first scenes. The film presents a wonderful and balanced combination of whimsical humor and emotional depth as a daughter and father come to terms with the father’s cognitive decline. Here is an excerpt from my review of this film:
Occasionally, there are poignant scenes that are not embedded with humor; they are touching in their head-on dealing with grief and loss, or startling with their reflective wisdom. There is, for example, a brief scene with a prospective caregiver for Richard who says, “In my experience, if you are accepting stuff, right? Then life, it’s much easier.” Richard, who is standing next to her agrees. “Much easier. And fighting something that you can’t—fighting doesn’t bring it back…You can’t control death.” It is, in fact this little interchange that holds the core of what this film is all about. Dick Johnson Is Dead presents us with something that we all need—an opportunity to reflect on what is often a missing piece in our attempt at expressing the concept of “successful aging.” Until we begin to include the acceptance of decline and eventual death in our discussion of aging and elderhood, we will never get to the roots of what triggers ageism in our personal and societal consciousness.
(For the full review see: https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/61/2/287/6029081.)
This film presents a creative and entertaining way for viewers to absorb a deeper and more sensitively balanced approach to thinking about aging and elderhood.
Dick Johnson Is Dead has won several awards including the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
The Mole Agent
This unusual film is in my top four list because, despite a partial flaw in its tone, it reveals something that few films have been able to do. It manages to give us a long look at life inside a residential care facility. Very few films have been able to do this, mostly because residential care homes will not allow any kind of filming inside the facility. (A notable exception to this is the wonderful 2006 film, Andrew Jenks, Room 335. This film follows 19-year-old Andrew Jenks as he moves into an assisted living facility to experience what it is like to live there. He quickly forms bonds with many of the residents, and in that process, discovers their genuine feelings as they live out their lives in the facility.)
The Mole Agent accomplishes much of the same thing that Andrew Jenks: Room 335 does, but with a different set-up. The film, set in a small city near Santiago, Chile, shows the experience of an older man, Sergio Chamy, who has been recruited by a detective agency to go undercover in a local nursing home to find out who might be stealing from one of the residents. The agency equips Sergio with a smartphone and with special glasses that contain a video recording device. The opening scenes of Sergio being schooled in how to use these tools for his undercover work are presented with an underlying tone of humor and with an underlying spy-genre music score. The film is dangerously close here to using humor that is grounded in the denigration of older adults. Fortunately, this tone is soon replaced by one of empathy when Sergio moves into the facility and begins to engage with its residents.
From my review:
What begins as a spy-caper film gradually transforms into an engaging look at the emotional terrain of life in a residential care facility. As most of us know, it is not a pleasant terrain. Luckily, for the film, and for the residents, Sergio turns out to be a very empathetic man. As he carries out his spy work, he is also drawn deeply into the lives of several of the residents.
(For the full review see: https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/61/1/127/5960279)
The Mole Agent was nominated for an Academy Award in 2021.
The two things that make this film worthy of being in the Top Four list are the chemistry between the two lead actors, and the way that their relationship is framed. Most films that portray romantic relationships in older age are about new relationships—a new love found in later life. Rarely do films present viewers with a seasoned and intimate relationship that has lasted into later life. Ordinary Love does just that. The film portrays a year in the life of Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) Thompson, during which they deal with the discovery and treatment of Joan’s breast cancer.
Both the scripting and the acting in this film have a deeply engaging quality. As I watched the film, I quickly identified with Tom and Joan as a real-life couple struggling with a painful experience—a struggle that is sometimes punctuated by intense conflict in their relationship.
From my review:
These squabbles and fights do not lead to a downward spiral in their relationship. Rather, the fights are left behind and replaced again and again with expressions of Tom and Joan’s deep underlying affection and love for each other. When Joan is nearing the end of her chemo she cries out to Tom. “I can’t take this anymore.” Tom holds her in his arms and pauses before responding to her despair. He then tells her about how he never quite motivated himself to run in a marathon, and how inadequate that made him feel; he compares it to what Joan is now doing. “You are doing it. You’re coming up to the finish line, Joan. You’re nearly there. You’re gonna do it.”
Ordinary Love is a film that is both searing and endearing. Searing because of the raw ordeal that a life-threatening cancer imposes on each spouse, and endearing because of the overall grace within which this experience is presented.
For the full review see: https://academic.oup.com/gerontologist/article/60/6/1182/5863165
Ordinary Love won the Best Film 2020 Award from the Irish Film and Television Academy.
This film is on the Top Four list, but with a huge caveat. The film is exceptionally well acted and the storyline boldly creates an inside look into how the memory loss of dementia may be experienced by some individuals. The film fails, however, to rise above the all too familiar representation of the downward spiral into fear and anger that dementia can trigger in those who experience it.
From my review:
There is a dictum inherent in most movie making that says: “go big with the drama.” The accompanying assumption is that drama is what makes a film entertaining and successful. To create drama, there must be conflict. In most commercial films, the conflict is ramped up out of proportion to the lives we normally experience…
…When this commonly accepted approach to filmmaking is applied to films about dementia (and many films about aging—but that’s another article), it means that we as viewers would be wise to step back and put that approach in a broader perspective. If we don’t do that, such films may influence our own perceptions of dementia while they reinforce the common and destructive stereotypes about the dementia syndrome. The Father, with its unrelenting presentation of the vortex of anxiety experienced by Anthony, feeds our already heightened societal fear of having to deal with dementia, and its stigma—either as a person, or as a care partner.
The questions I would like viewers to ask as they watch The Father—or after they have watched it are: “Could this story have been presented differently? What if the film had introduced a way for the horrific and unrelenting anxiety that both Anthony and his daughter Anne were experiencing to be resolved in some way?”
To adequately review this important film, we enlisted the perspectives of four different reviewers. One of these reviewers actually presents a revised ending to the film—one that imagines a healthy resolution to the downward spiral of dementia that is presented in The Father. Another of the reviews is written by someone who herself is living with moderate symptoms of dementia. She presents her reflections on what this film means to her.
Here are the links to each of the reviews.
The Father: Big Lessons from “Little Daddy” by Rose Capp
Filming the “Drama” of Dementia by Jim Vanden Bosch
“It Doesn’t Not Have To Be This Way” by Cyndy Luzinksi
The Capacity to Love by Paulan Gordon