3 Stars - Challenging
It is difficult to describe the pain and anger a broken family experiences, but Mike Binder’s “The Upside of Anger” does a masterful job. Written and directed as a tragedy in which the suffering is seen as purposeful and necessary for growth, Binder understands the nature of family grief. In addition to the inevitable feelings of failure and rejection a broken marriage invokes, the grieving of such a loss often gets fixated in a pervasive anger that is expressed indiscriminately to everyone around. That is the response of Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen).
Terry is the mother of four daughters whose mutual pain at their father’s absence exacerbates the anger Terry feels toward her husband. The oldest daughter, Hadley (Alicia Witt) is a student in college and meets her mother’s anger with her own. The second daughter Andy (Erika Christensen) responds by ignoring her mother’s wishes and drops out of school to pursue both an unfortunate relationship and a career in radio. The third daughter Emily (Keri Russell) responds with anorexic exercise as she withdraws into dance. And the fourth daughter, the narrator of the film, is Lavender “Popeye” (Evan Rachel Wood) whose adolescent fantasy is to slap her mother, and then run. Aggravating this shared pain is Terry’s alcohol addiction as she tries to escape from feeling and avoid relating to others.
Alone in the world with no relationships with her neighbors, circle of friends or faith community, Terry is the archetypal loner. Self-absorbed to an almost narcissistic level, Terry takes all of her daughter’s reactions as personal attacks and has little ability to either understand or identify with them. This creates an even deeper grief for the daughters as they lose both their father and mother.
Into this pool of sorrow dives an equally impoverished Denny Davies (Kevin Costner). Also addicted to alcohol as he attempts to deaden his own disappointments with life, Denny is not only willing to care for Terry but also finds the “tension” of her family better than being alone.
This choice of the “lesser of two evils” often sets us up for pain. When we feel nothing because we have no one in our lives, the alternative we often choose is any relationship, even a relationship which we know will be painful, because at least then we know we will feel something. The tragedy of such a decision is to accept pain as the best we can do.
As in all tragic tales, the story leads us to a resolution that allows everyone to feel some relief from their pain and a capacity to continue on. This continuance is not so much a “happy ever after” promise of a fairy-tale life, but an awareness that they have all experienced the worst that life can give and they have survived. Just as they shared their tragedy, they now share their common experience of being survivors. But there is no evidence that they have learned how to build healthy relationships that can thrive on positive choices in life, or that they can become people who are fulfilled by contributing to or accomplishing a greater purpose than their own self-interests. Based on their lack of spiritual awareness or interest in others, they remain troubled people living troubled lives.
- When all a family has to cope with in life is their own limited resources, it is easy to understand the pain and anger we see in this film. How do you think their lives would have been different if this family had been people of faith, and been supported by a faith community? If they had at least known the coworkers of their husband/father to inquire about his true circumstances?
- The decision of Terry and Denny to find solace in one another melded their two dysfunctional lives into one. Do you believe their relationship will work out? Why or why not?
- The lack of parental guidance and care by Terry (or Denny) for Andy when she is seduced by Adam “Shep” Goodman (played by the author and director Mike Binder) is obvious. What do you think this relationship did to Andy? Was it a “good thing”, since she became a producer more quickly as Adam justifies it?
- A line of a popular song bemoaned: “Some times I think it’s a shame when I get feeling better ‘cause I’m feeling no pain.” How often do you think we settle for lives that are able to endure pain instead of seeking lives that are full of joy? How do you find joy?