Saturday, 18 June 2016

"When Marnie Was There" Review

by Alex Hill


"Anna" (Hailee Steinfeld) lives in a fog. Her isolation is shown and told matter-of-factly. An asthma attack, puberty and self-worth issues all come to a tipping point. A lot of Ghibli protagonists seem to have everything figured out before the story begins, all the more convenient for them to save the day. Anna can barely stand being alive in this state. She doesn't even know how to save herself.

Tell me if you've heard this one before: A person with an illness is advised to go to the country for the "fresh air", which conveniently allows the animators to draw pastoral scenes. This is not exactly treading new ground. It's pretty much how "The Secret World of Arrietty" and "My Neighbor Totoro" begin. Maybe this would be more of a problem for me if it weren't so damned charming.

"When Marnie Was There" is a familiar story told with warmth and sincerity. It could have been told with more clarity, but I also think uncertainty is at the heart of it all.

Two very patient and jovial relatives(played by John C. Reilly and Grey Griffin) take Anna in to live in their home for the summer. Their house is another in a long list of Studio Ghibli locations I wish I could physically inhabit, at least for a small while. That's something these movies have a knack for. Locations are characters too. Even something less fantastical than Howl's moving castle doesn't have to be mundane. The Oiwa household is a place of love, in stark contrast to several other locations here(including a menacing, rotted grain silo). It's a well-worn visual cliche, but it's suitable here.

Anna has trouble adjusting and fitting in. She can barely hold polite conversation without withdrawing or lashing out. She is tossed back and forth between not knowing what's wrong, and knowing but being helpless to change it. This leads her to "Marnie" (Kiernan Shipka), a girl whose long blonde hair and vintage wardrobe seem out of place in modern-day Japan. Their slow-building friendship helps Anna sort the pieces of her own puzzle, but it comes with a lot of nagging questions.

There's the suggestion that Marnie isn't all there. If all of her encounters with Marnie aren't real, and people keep finding her passed out on the road or in other weird places, does that mean Anna is narcoleptic? Is Marnie a hallucination? Does Anna have the hollywood version of paranoid-schizophrenia? Does this lady have magic powers or something? Is she a ghost??

I wonder if there's an element of time-travel. She doesn't seem to be the only one who has met Marnie recently, as one character hints. I wonder if the people who made this movie really thought about it long enough. A story doesn't need to give away all its' answers, but does this story have them at all? Another pass at the script could have helped. Or it could be an oversight in the dub. Maybe it's intentionally-vague, but I'm rarely satisfied with that suggestion. It's not that it wouldn't fit here, but it's difficult for me to accept that as anything but a non-answer. As noncommittal as "it was all a dream!".

Is that a fair complaint to make about a movie like this? I don't even know anymore.

I should be more concerned with how this story is told rather than what it is. But I confess it still blows my mind that a studio would spend millions of dollars on an animated feature film about such an intimate concept. This isn't "Inside Out". This isn't a superhero movie. They don't have to save the town from an evil threat, and there's no stupid dance party at the end. It's about two teenage girls finding some peace with each other, in a world where that can be harder to find than it should be.

Actual penny-pinching executives were somehow convinced it was right to fund a movie like this, without the need for fight scenes or fuzzy goofball mascots made to sell McDonalds happy meals. And it feels like more care and attention was put into this than a lot of more popular animated movies I've seen lately. People love Studio Ghibli because it can feel like they're the only studio that would ever dare make this movie, or at least devote the budget and man-hours to pull it off like this. That it might be their last major production is not lost on me, it can't help but paint my experience watching it. It's as much a film as it is a goodbye.

I'm probably the wrong person to review this. I was never a teenage girl, but I relate too much to briefly meeting a gentle-hearted person who helped me out of despair. Through frustration and self-loathing I thought had no end. Objectivity might be out of reach here, but I suppose anyone can relate to that scenario. Marnie comes into Anna's life when she is at her most uncertain, unstable and vulnerable. She's gentle but assertive, hard to pin down and sporadic. In spite of her unreliable nature, she's instrumental in giving a scared girl the courage to let people in. Anna's inner world is hopelessly intimidating, and in that state even a beautiful world can look terrifying. Between all of that is Marnie's companionship, the first sacred thing to happen to her. An oasis.

Maybe this is why I got my best friend a copy of this movie for her birthday. Perhaps it communicates the impact she had on me in ways I can't articulate.

Sometimes a movie hits me in the right place at the right moment. I was feeling pretty down when I watched "When Marnie Was There" on a whim, and it was what my heart needed. Watching it again, I can see more clearly its' rough patches, things I more readily forgave or didn't notice at first. But I'm grateful that it mesmerized me so, and it's still absorbing in the clear light of day. Like stepping into a warm bath.

That's the thing about Studio Ghibli: you don't "get lost" in the eloquence of these movies. You find your way home.

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