2016-04-11

Movie Review: Concussion (2013)

Concussion - from banging my head against the wall
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

Netflix is in a bit of a lull these days. I've watched everything on Netflix that I have any real interest in watching, so now I'm down to the second-stringers, the movies I can convince myself to watch only after a couple of glasses of wine.

Concussion was one such movie. The short plot synopsis was sufficiently vague to convince me that the movie would be interesting. It was something to the effect of, "Housewife becomes a high-class prostitute," but there was some additional wording in there that lead me to believe the movie would feature a lot of intrigue and wouldn't just be another poorly rated, salacious indie film.

I was right on both counts: This was a pretty interesting movie, but not a particularly salacious one. I'm glad I watched it, but I came away horrified. Let me explain.

Concussion tells the story of a lesbian housewife trapped in an unhappy, sexless marriage. I say "lesbian housewife" rather than simply "housewife" not because it's relevant to the plot - as far as I can tell, the lesbianism in the movie is just sort of incidental - but because whoever wrote the script went out of her way to call attention to the fact that main character Abby and her wife are lesbians. It's an odd bit of awkwardness in the movie. I don't really have an issue with the fact that they are a lesbian couple with two children - but this comes up in several scenes as part of the dialogue, even though it doesn't affect the plot whatsoever. So, there ya go: I mentioned it.

Abby, the forty-something lesbian housewife, doesn't work. She spends her days at home, raising the couple's two children, going to spin class, not having sex, and grappling with ennui. After suffering a minor concussion (hence the name of the film, geddit?) when her son hits her in the head with a baseball, Abby decides to go back to work. But going back to work isn't quite enough to cure her ills, so she tries hiring a prostitute. She didn't like it, but when she spills the beans to her business partner - a college aged man connected to a younger, hipper crowd - he sets her up with a higher-class hooker. Abby likes this experience much better, and it's sufficient to convince her to try her hand at high-class, lesbian-only prostitution.

What happens next is all the stuff you might expect from a film like this. After a few awkward beginnings, Abby rediscovers herself in her new role as "Eleanor, the high-class lesbian hooker." She experiences a sexual reawakening, rediscovers her lust for life, meets interesting people, and gradually allows her double-life to bleed over into her real life. Finally, she is forced to confront all the issues that were causing her original ennui in the first place. And they all live dramatically ever after.

There are a few very obvious criticisms to make of this movie. The first is that it is unbelievably white. I don't think there's a single person of color in the movie, aside from one of Abby's Asian clients, who doesn't have a speaking role. But casting an Asian woman as a nameless, writhing body having an orgasm isn't exactly what I'd call diverse casting. To make matters worse, Abby lives an incredibly wonderful life. Her wife is a successful businesswoman who drives a Mercedes. They live in a picturesque colonial New England house in a picturesque New England town. When Abby "goes back to work," we discover that she has one of those jobs that every educated white person imagines to be wonderful: she restores run-down New England homes, decorates them immaculately with only the best and trendiest interior designs, and then sells them at a profit. Their other hobbies include spin classes, yoga, reading feminist literature, and hosting wine and cheese parties. No, I'm not making any of this up. The movie is what happens when SUNY grad students are allowed to wonder aloud where they see themselves at age "42," Abby's self-reported age.

Thus, the movie is pretty heavy on identity advertising. But that's not the most disturbing part for me. No, setting aside the slow pacing and the identity politics, there's something really ugly about the way this story unfolds.

Part of Abby's journey of self-discovery involves becoming a sort of mentor to her clients. She doesn't just have sex with them, she helps them discover themselves in some way. For some, it's learning about their self-worth; for others, it's gaining courage; for others, it's learning about what brought them to a prostitute in the first place. Whatever it is, Abby is there to provide wisdom and sex. In a way, she becomes a sort of mother to each and every one of her clients.

The problem here is that Abby already has children at home who could be receiving that kind of wisdom from their real mother, if she were there. Imparting that wisdom to them is something that would serve as every bit as much of a self-actualizing process for Abby as being a high-class prostitute would be. And if you're sitting there thinking, "Hey, great plot twist!" then I hate to spoil it for you, but the movie doesn't even tackle this dynamic.

Throughout the film, Abby's children at home are given only minor speaking parts. In one scene, they're seen fighting at the store while the camera zooms in on Abby. In another scene, they're asking to be excused from the dinner table so that Abby and her wife can have a serious conversation. In another scene, one of them is performing in a school play while the camera zooms in on Abby's emotionally distant expression.

In other words, the children aren't characters in the movie, they're just part of the backdrop.

But Abby's provision of mentoring services to her clients is not a backdrop, it's part of the plot. It's the means by which she achieves self-actualization. This means that the children in this movie were never really intended to be part of the plot - they're not there to give Abby's life meaning, they're there to symbolize her ennui. They're a source of frustration. The cure to that frustration is to become a mentor to people who badly need mentoring - but not the kids, just some random white-or-occasionally-Asian-orgasm-in-a-sweater.

See, the disturbing part of Concussion is not what it reveals about life or about the characters, but what it reveals about the writers - people who apparently find self-actualization very important, and who see mentoring as a path to obtaining it, but to whom it never even occurs that the rightful and natural recipients of that mentoring are the children who hardly feature in the story at all.

In short, Concussion is a movie about what privileged, educated, white New England women wish they were doing rather than raising families, and that vision largely consists of interior design and a steady stream of sexual partners who pay you to not only have sex with them, but also to sit and listen to you.

Icky.