Telling a familiar story but telling it well is an underrated skill. If you can’t manage that feat, the well-worn beats of the plot will end up being an albatross around the film’s neck, bringing it down. However, if you can pull it off, familiarity can work in your favor as a storyteller. After all, in the right cases, cliches are beneficial, since they only became cliched after a sustained run of effectiveness. Now playing at Film Fest 919 down in North Carolina, Herself definitely pulls this off. In the process, it manages to be a small-scale drama that finds universal emotions to mine.
Herself evokes a bit of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, though it’s ultimately far more hopeful and optimistic than either of those filmmakers. The movie never loses sight of why we root for a protagonist, which is huge. Whereas someone like Loach recently misplayed that hand when telling a another of his working class story set in the United Kingdom. Sorry to Bother You may have some similar beats to Herself, but the latter is ultimately far more successful, due to its deference to the positives in life, not just the negatives.
This really is an introduction to most audiences to Clare Dunne, who co-writes here in addition to starring. The Irish actress is mostly known for her stage work, though some might have briefly seen her in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Herself is a labor of love that will put her on the map, though, so prepare to see a lot more of her in the years to come.
For single mother Sandra Kelly (Dunne), nothing is coming easy. Separated from her abusive ex-husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), she’s struggling to find a permanent home for her two young daughters (Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara). Scarred both literally and figuratively from her ex, Sandra is caught up in the government housing system, which is paying her a small stipend, but hasn’t provided a home yet. So, Sandra eventually decides to build her own little place for the family, of course encountering issues along the way.
As things get more and more desperate, a glimmer of hope rears its head when Peggy (Harriet Walter), the women whose house Sandra cleans, has an epiphany. Peggy is a widowed doctor with some money and some land, so she opts to give Sandra a space in her ample yard to build on. So, construction starts, concealed from the broken governmental system that would cut her off if they found out. Melodrama ensues, of course.
Clare Dunne is quite good here, creating a realistic and sympathetic character who you can’t help but root for. Harriet Walter is very solid, too, though Dunne is out and out the star. Even when the cliches mount, her performance shines through. It’s clear she invested a lot in the part. Every ounce of her effort is on the screen, imbuing it with a passion that’s truly palpable.
Director Phyllida Lloyd doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table, but she executes the script that Dunne penned with Malcolm Campbell. Lloyd stages it all well enough, but there’s no real style on display. Throw in a fairly slack sense of pacing and it’s a good thing that Campbell and Dunne are on point with their writing. If not, this could have turned into a slog.
Herself ultimately overcomes cliches and familiarity to tell a story almost anyone can relate to. The struggle for basic shelter, safety, and happiness is all too common these days. Whether it’s at Film Fest 919 or in general release later on this season, Amazon Studios’ little indie drama is worth a watch.