Boy, did we need this one.
“Herself” is an uplifting real world drama in classic weeper/wish-fulfillment fantasy clothes, a story of pluck and heart, violence and sadness.
And if you ever needed a good cry…
The latest film from the great Phyllida Lloyd (“The Iron Lady”) opens with near unspeakable sadness. A young Irish mother, dancing with her kids in the kitchen, is interrupted by their dad who wants the girls to go outside.
Mom (Clare Dunne) whispers two words to her oldest (Ruby Rose O’Hara), and the child takes a wicker lunchbox and heads out the door. When she hits the yard, she breaks into a sprint.
It’s a “safety box.” There’s a desperate message taped inside the lid. And little Emma, who looks about 7, runs into a nearby newstand, opens the lid and shouts at the clerk.
“Call the GUARDS!”
The address and her mother’s words that she’s in danger are on that message. Dad (Ian Lloyd Anderson) is beating up Mom, and this time it could be fatal.
We have just enough time to take a breath in this wrenching moment to consider what just happened, the awful situation that causes a woman to have to come up with that desperate lifeline and the terrible responsibility a mother has had to give her child. The youngest (Molly McCann) can hang onto her innocence a little longer, perhaps. But older Emma has to know that this time, the cops are coming.
Sandra is saved, out of that environment, taking her kids with her. “Herself” is about her daily scramble to work two jobs, get her oldest to school, complain about the long wait on state’s “the housing list” while sharing custody with the cowardly thug who beat her and wants to get her and them back.
No, she doesn’t let word get around which hotel social services is putting them up in. Three year “safety order” (restraining) or not, Sandra is scared to death, with a permanently-injured hand and a scarred psyche. All sorts of things trigger her.
As she dashes from her bar job to cleaning a disabled doctor’s house, looking in on her (Harriet Walter) being part of the deal, she researches options. There’s this Internet architect who’s come up with this super cheap small (not “tiny”) house design he shares for free. It’s “DIY” friendly, if you can just get some land, some permits and a little bit of expertise.
Sandra, obstacles and logic be damned, has her purpose and we’ve got ourselves an inspiring up-by-your-bootstraps movie.
Dunne, something of a discovery here, co-wrote the script and goes easy on the sugar-coating. Yes, Sandra will require “the kindness of strangers” and acquaintances. But with the tone set early on, we can only wait to see the first thing that goes wrong, and then the second and third.
And we never lose the fear of the worst that might happen.
Dunne’s sweet way with the kids is just magical, light-heartedly repeating the story of her birth mark (under one eye) as put on her by the Almighty to recognize her, “because there’s LOOooaaaads’a Sandras in Dublin!”
The way she plays Sandra’s reactions to her trials and triggerings is a marvel of injury and empathy. Gentle, proud but pleading for help, hiding her awful history as she does, we root for Sandra “Herself” so hard it hurts.
The kids are adorable, smiling imps who either forget or forgive Dad, depending on how much they know and how close they were to the violence.
And Anderson makes a fine villain, not a cartoonish ogre but a working class brute who might have come by his behavior honestly, if unforgivably.
The only shortcomings here are the “wish fulfillment fantasy” corners of this story, the cast of “types” who help Sandra in her quest. But even they are only worth half an eye roll, because we could all use leg up, kindness from a near stranger, every now and then.
MPA Rating: R for language and some domestic violence
Cast: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Conleth Hill and Harriet Walter
Credits: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, script by Malcolm Campbel and Clare Dunne. A BBC Films/Amazon release.
Running time: 1:38