How little films challenge the concept of 'normal'

Outsiders put together kinds of families that celebrate diversity

July 18, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

It's a timeless story line: Outcasts find one another, discover their collective strength and prevail against the philistines who once made their lives miserable.

In a recent spate of films, those outcasts have been redrawn to address America's halting acceptance of diversity, and perhaps razz the religious right while they're at it. Not only do these motley and imperfect characters testify to the glories of embracing multiculturalism, they offer their own as a means of deliverance.

Pragmatic alliances become loyal -- and even loving -- tribes in films such as Napoleon Dynamite, the debut sensation by director Jared Hess, and Saved!, directed by UMBC grad Brian Donnelly; as well as Peter Hedges' Pieces of April and Jim Sheridan's In America, both touching looks at the way families must reach beyond their confines to brave tragedies.

All are small films with relatively modest budgets. All are about improvised families whose members may variously be gay, black, white, disabled, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, unwed and pregnant, HIV positive, socially inept -- or possibly all of the above.

Barely tolerated by their communities at first, these outsiders use their social disadvantages as a catalyst for empowerment. But that can happen only if they embrace "the other," such as when Napoleon's insipid older brother Kip falls in love with a beautiful black woman. In turn, her love transforms him into a confident, ghetto-licious guy with all the right moves.

Napoleon, seemingly clueless, liberates his high school from its fair-haired, physically-coordinated Mafia when he loses himself to the urban rhythms of a black dance song. With a hip-hop wiggle, he dispatches the even-featured evildoers that have made life hell for everyone else. In doing so, he also banishes the myth of a uniformly blond, blue-eyed and aggressively middle-of-the-road America.

Mistrust of difference

Of course, Napoleon's not the first anti-hero to do this. Nor is he the first to find refuge in an unconventional family. From You Can't Take it With You (1938), to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) to Monster's Ball (2001), film families have often deviated from the nuclear "norm," notes Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center, based at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He mentions as well the many Disney animated movies that feature an orphan or a child raised by a single adult.

"My guess is that most people (including Hollywood people) think of themselves as outsiders, and find their family circumstances to be far from the Rockwell (and religious right) stereotype, so it makes sense that when they do creative work, it's a way to make peace with their circumstances by contesting what's 'normal' and redefining the meaning of a happy ending," Kaplan says by e-mail.

Like its predecessors, today's atypical cinematic family is a catalyst for exploring divisive cultural issues, including gay rights, the definition of "family values," the HIV / AIDS crisis, immigration (legal and otherwise), the country's rapidly changing demographics, economic disparity and social isolation and malaise.

Because they are nonjudgmental of others' idiosyncrasies, Napoleon and his cohorts find a place to belong. In this way, they set an example for a nation chronically unable to reconcile its founding principles with an inherent mistrust of difference.

"Small movies have always been able to do things that big studio movies could not (with some exceptions) and so they often take stands that are in opposition to what is popular," says William Blizek, editor of The Journal of Religion and Film and a professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "Such films aren't made deliberately to oppose a particular agenda, he says by e-mail. "It may be that the visibility of the Christian / conservative / evangelical / right makes it appear that things are now in opposition to that group or movement, but the opposition may stem from the new visibility, rather than any intention on the part of filmmakers."

A sense of belonging

In all of these movies, the protagonists use their eclectic talents and their diversity to build an emotional fortress that protects them from the slights of bullies -- even as it offers those bullies a haven from their own prejudice. By claiming the moral high ground, these oddball families don't just vanquish their white-bread oppressors; they offer them salvation. Just because they're boring and narrow-minded doesn't mean they should be left out in the cold. And maybe if they come inside, they'll drop their facades and get real, too -- even if that means making a fool of themselves.

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