(scooting to the far edge of her twin-sized bed and raising the covers invitingly)
It's warmer in here....
Did she just invite Emily to share her bed with her?
I'm afraid she did.
You don't hate me?
(speedily crossing the foot of space between their beds and getting under the covers with Molly)
Emily... (pausing for effect and gazing at her intently) ...You'll always be MY princess.
What the fuck?
Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front is a surprising period piece by the makers of American Girl dolls and books. Surprising in several ways.
The first one that struck me, from the moment I saw advertisements for the movie, was the incredible visual resemblance to the Molly books. The young actress starring here, Maya Ritter, is the absolute spitting image of Molly. And while she's a little unseasoned as an actress, she manages to give many of her lines a surprisingly subtle and nuanced delivery - usually the lines that would normally be boring throw-aways. The sets and costumes also did a good job, to my uneducated eyes, of making everything seem very everyday and very 1940s at the same time.
The second surprise came as soon as the young actresses opened their mouths. You may have guessed it from the lines quoted above. That's right: this movie about young girls who are supposed to be in third grade has more unfortunate homoerotic subtext than an episode of Angel. The movie opens with Molly and her friends gushing about how dreamy their teacher Miss Campbell is, how wonderfully her sweater complemented her beautiful eyes today, what color of sweater she might wear tomorrow.... They continue this discussion of How Much We Adore Our Beautiful Dreamy Teacher throughout the movie. In their movie theater, in the soda shop, during class. It is GirlCrush Central. And then there was the bedroom scene described above, which crossed the line even further.
The fact that the actresses were all roughly twelve years old when the movie was filmed, and in no way pass for eight-year-olds, contributes to the odd take on some of their lines. So does gay aunt Eleanor, who is running off to fly planes in the war.
A smaller surprise was young Andrew Chalmers, who in playing younger brother Ricky acted circles around every other member of the cast. Including Molly Ringwald. Unsurprisingly, this little guy has already been nominated for one award: the Young Artist Award for Best Young Ensemble Performance in a TV Series, for his work in "Darcy's Wild Life." Older sister Jill, one Genevieve Farrell, was surprisingly and painfully wooden, especially by contrast. The unevenness of the cast overall was pretty surprising, although more so for the good acting than the bad.
But most of all, what struck me about this movie was how mercilessly it depicted the abusive roots of our own society.
You know, there are people collecting American Girl dolls today who are the same age that Molly would be if she were a real person. There are people who got into it because of that. These are people a little older than my parents; they are grandparents today. This movie conscientiously and purposefully depicts what life was like in the American mainstream for those folks. It is as careful in showing how they related as it is in showing what they might have eaten at a soda fountain.
Molly's family doesn't really talk about the scary and traumatic events going on around them in the world. They discuss the news, of course, and the kids eat it up. They show a newsreel about the war before every movie, along with a cartoon short. It's nothing like as graphic as news coverage of the wars in Vietnam or Iraq. But it is continuously impressed on everyone that there is a war on, that they could be bombed, that their neighbors and brothers and fathers are being killed.
But they have no language for the emotional impact of these experiences. When Molly finds her Rosie-the-Riveter mother at home unexpectedly, baking a casserole, and asks why, all her mother can give by way of explanation is that a neighbor's son has been killed in combat and that this is what people do when dreadful things happen: they offer casseroles, because that is the only thing they can do.
They can't talk about it, for sure. They can't offer help with everyday chores and errands. They can bring over a casserole, wordlessly, and then bow out. This is precisely what they do when the babysitter's son dies, after it has been established that she is a single mother all alone in the world with nobody else to love her but her son and cannot stop talking about him to everybody in sight so we know that this is a tragedy. Molly brings over a casserole from her mother, and then they look sad and part ways again.
They don't have therapy. Hell, we barely have therapy now; it is still a very young tool, and most people don't know enough about different kinds of therapy or warning signs of bad therapy for it to be more than hit or miss as a healing practice. They really didn't have therapy back then: while there were psychoanalysts here and there, there weren't school counselors, there was very little understanding of developmental psychology, there was no play therapy, no understanding of how to help children develop emotionally at all. So when they take in Emily, who has been evacuated from her home in London after her apartment was destroyed and mother killed in a bombing raid, it does not occur to anyone that she might need therapy. They don't even know about post-traumatic stress disorder.
When the family has to go down to the basement for an air raid drill, Emily is, understandably, triggered out of her mind. Molly makes her first friendly advances to the girl, mentioning how scary it must have been for her in London, and Emily stares at her with burned-out eyes and talks on and on about how horrible it was to wait in the dark not knowing whether the bombs would fall on you and to walk down the street the next day and see buildings that you had walked by every day your whole life reduced to nothing but bricks and rubble. Until Molly comes over to talk to her, Emily is sitting far away from the rest of the family, in the dark, behind a pillar; nobody has even thought to see if she knows that bombs are not going to fall on them, or if she is okay. When she has nightmares about the bombings and lies in bed shaking and terrified, nobody knows except Molly. Neither of them think to tell an adult; why would they talk about their fear and their pain? What could any adult do to help, and why would they buck the social mores that say to suck it up and keep a stiff upper lip? They are very, very alone.
This emotional vacuum is especially evident when the father goes off to war. Young Ricky, too young to understand the danger, is excited; Molly is the only one of the family to object. She begs him not to go, almost crying, insists that he must not go. Her family's response is for her parents to explain, gently but intellectually, that this is the decision they have made and that it is important for them to help the war effort as much as they can, and for her older sister Jill to lecture her prissily about being mature and understanding that they all have to make sacrifices. Her father explains that they need more doctors for wounded soldiers, that he is needed there. When Molly yells that they, his family, need him more, there is only silence. They have no way to talk about what children need from their parents, or to provide it, no way to help her deal with this apparent abandonment. The children are simply expected to push on through and avoid making trouble.
Molly is the only one to bring up the possibility that he will die, the only one brave enough to name their fear; the only bit of succor they can offer in reply is that he will not be on the front lines. Her father does try to talk to her, and her alone, about these fears; his form of support is to encourage her to be brave and tell her that she is his North Star, that he can count on her and that they will always feel connected, because the North Star is always visible in the sky. Yeah... making kids feel like they have to be there for you is a great way to help them deal with their issues. Best of all, not only is Molly the only one who is shown getting any kind of support around their father's choice to join the military, but when the family sees him off at the train station, she is the only one to whom he says, "I love you." And he only says it because she runs alongside the train and yells it out to him first, as if the forbidden emotional words are being ripped out of her.
Throughout the rest of the movie, the same themes are repeated. We rarely see the family members touch one another, no matter how fun or scary their lives become. They orbit each other warily, expressing their love mainly through actions like saving up to buy their mother a Christmas tree. The way you know that Molly's mother loves her is that when the babysitter forces her to sit at the table until she eats her loathed turnips, tossing her many threatening remarks (along with the rest of the family) about how immature she is being and how terrible it will be if she does not start eating before her mother gets home, her mother actually adds some of the rationed sugar and butter to the turnips and sits down to keep her company while she eats. The impact of these tiny actions is made all the greater by the contrast with their usual dysfunctional lives.
And these are the parents and grandparents of today's world. Jill, the oldest sibling, shows the effects of this emotional neglect the most. While her siblings were born to more experienced parents and into a larger family, it is painfully obvious that Jill was raised with the least warmth and the highest expectations of mature behavior. Her main role in this movie is to act that out on her siblings over and over, particularly on the warmer and more clearly adored Molly. Jill only really has two lines, repeated variations on how Molly needs to grow up and be more mature, which she spits out every time Molly expresses any feelings about anything. She's jealous that Molly gets love, but she doesn't even know it. Over and over, all she's saying is "I had to be hard for them. I had to be mature. I had to shut up and bear it. How dare you say and feel all the things that I never could?"
This is a generation of deprivation. It's not quite WASPy, but close. They inherited the effects of the emotional repression of the Victorian age, of the pioneers that had to suck it up through all kinds of blizzards and starvation and isolation, the unnoticed damage of all the brutality that was considered good parenting and good teaching. The wild outbursts of the Twenties, as the repression began to snap and swing wildly in the opposite direction. The deprivation of their own time: The Great Depression. World War Two. The boys who would grow up to be traditional fathers in the fifties, taught not to have emotional connections, taught that their worth and their love would be shown primarily through work and money. The girls placed at a tipping point between the daring work they saw women doing in the war and the repressive resocialization that would come afterward.
Their children would grow up in a different world. They couldn't understand about the war, or the Depression. Jill would raise her children ten or twenty years later with a rod of iron, her love for them often masked by the same vicious control that she showed with Molly. They would be coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies, shearing away from her grip into a world of other children shearing off too, swearing that they would never be so repressive. By then, the emotional landscape would be changing. Her children sought out love wherever they could get it. They were the first generation to really experiment with therapy, with self-help groups, with whatever might change the financially abundant but emotionally cold world into one that would love them. And it became a movement: talk shows, self-help books, Rolfing, est, Moonies, Prozac, group therapy, consciousness-raising groups, 12-step programs. There was a fiery struggle going on between how they were supposed to behave and how they wanted things to be - a struggle which gave birth to all kinds of resources, both useful and crazy.
And as they were growing up, the language was changing. People knew now about developmental stages. They could argue about whether spanking was harmless good discipline or abusive and unnecessary, whether helping children develop self-esteem was crucial and difficult or touchy-feely crap. It was the first generation to talk openly in the mainstream about mental illness, sexual abuse, ritual abuse, abortion, homosexuality. They were still acting out their own neglect and abuse on themselves and others, but many of them were starting to heal. Their children would often grow up just as fucked up, but as a generation, grew up to know (or, sometimes, to learn) that they needed and deserved healthy love, that their own abuse must have been noticed and should have been acted against, that there was a huge pool of information to draw from about families and relationships and emotions and that there was still more to add to the pool. They would be the first to talk openly about bisexuality and gender and being transgendered as a generation, to start shedding old assumptions about gender and sexuality as a society instead of only as subcultures.
Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front has plenty of flaws. It departs from the first Molly book in many ways, both crucial (like Emily's much larger role, to inflate sales of the Emily doll, or like changing the ending entirely) and annoyingly inconsequential (why make Mrs. Gilford their neighbor instead of their housekeeper? why leave out younger brother Brad?). But as a period piece illustrating the painfully awkward and emotionally neglectful roots of United States society today, it's kind of brilliant.