Despite COVID and social distancing, I was able to attend the *virtual* Middleburg Film Festival this year and I am happy to report that I did not see one bad movie. Bravo to all involved for making such compelling choices for the lineup. Believe me, those of us at home need the amazing content.
And it is the discovery of incredible movies like HERSELF that make entire film festivals worth attending. I love finding hidden gems, movies that may not have all of the publicity of some of the flashier films of the year, but pack their own punch. Movies that you can tell are written, directed, and performed with such extraordinary heart, it bleeds out to audiences.
Never has this been more apparent than in the female-led HERSELF, a triumph for all involved. With an emotional, heart-wrenching script and devastating lead performance by Clare Dunne, the film may be a heavy watch, but it is an important one. I appreciated that it did not ignore the lingering effects of trauma, but still chose to focus on resilience in the face of extreme domestic abuse and injustices suffered by the legal system.
A screenwriting rule is that you should need to make your lead character likable to audiences within the first 15 minutes of the film. I was obsessed with Sandra’s (Dunne) story within the first 15 seconds. Set in Ireland, the film follows a mother of two young girls who is trying to find her way out of an incredibly abusive relationship. She finally decides to leave her husband after he almost beats her to death in front of their children; the only reason she survives is because her daughter knows to carry a hidden message to a nearby shopkeeper that asks for him to call the police when the abuse escalates.
But of course, leaving an abusive relationship is never easy and Sandra has to constantly deal with issues over her living situation, multiple jobs, custody hearings, and her abusive husband trying to weasel his way back in. When Sandra discovers she can build an inexpensive house to get her and the girls in a more stable environment, it’s just the goal she needs to keep pushing on. And thanks to a generous donation of land and a building loan from Peggy (the always amazing Harriet Walter), a widowed doctor Sandra looks after, as well as help from a local builder to supervise construction, Sandra starts to get by with a little help from her friends.
What starts as a movie about one woman’s struggle overcoming a horrible situation of abuse ends with a community coming together to help her succeed. And I think that is absolutely beautiful and heartwarming. Without giving too much away, you may see the *ahem* conflict in the final act coming from a mile away and that is okay. I actually liked that about the movie, because it showed the more important part is not how our lead handles additional trauma, but more how she can lean on her new family to come out on the other side. It is no longer all on her shoulders.
As much as I rooted for Sandra’s success in the film, I am similiary invested in HERSELF’s success with audiences. All of the tears that I shed and “hell yeahs” I screamed at my TV indicate that this film will keep you enthralled from the beginning and won’t leave your brain for hours after the end credits roll. Sandra’s speech in the courtroom alone is the most powerful and compelling moment I have seen on screen this year and I can’t wait to see what else Clare Dunne has in store down the road. I know I will be first in line.
My Review: A