A little over an hour into Ricki and the Flash, the new Meryl Streep star vehicle now playing in theaters, there's a terrific shot that captures just why Ricki, the aging wannabe rocker played by Streep, does what she does.
The camera begins by holding on a dingy little barroom stage, where Ricki and her band rip into U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for." Just off-center in the foreground, a woman's head bops back and forth, lost in her own private dance. Then the camera begins to pull back from the stage, revealing the dancing woman in full, before it pulls past a quartet of people dancing, a little farther out from the stage. The bar is quiet. It's only a half-full night. But for these five people and the band, it's perfection. Sometimes this is all you need — a band to play the hits and an open floor to dance on.
Ricki and the Flash is far from perfect. It meanders, and screenwriter Diablo Cody's script introduces a handful of plot points that many will complain never go anywhere — in particular a storyline involving Audra McDonald as the second wife of Ricki's ex-husband. But it's also one of the best movies of the year, a tribute to the idea that anger and forgiveness aren't mutually exclusive. Indeed, they sometimes go hand in hand.
Streep plays a mother who left her children behind
Cody — who also wrote Juno and the terrific Young Adult — often writes about characters who are stuck between what they desperately want and the comfortable life they already have. There's something deeply Midwestern about her sensibility, vaguely similar to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as characters confront the weird longing at their centers that they lack the vocabulary to put into words. (Indeed, Cody, like Fitzgerald, is from Minnesota.)
That idea finds its fruition in Ricki, a married mother of three who simply up and left when she decided it was time to pursue a rock 'n' roll career before it was too late. Both she and the people she left behind have deep scars from her decision, and Ricki has yet to make anything of her dreams (as the fact that she's still playing in a bar band would suggest). But what's remarkable about the film is its refusal to condemn her for her actions — as well as its refusal to condemn her family for their anger at her when she reenters their lives.
Ricki heads back to her former Indianapolis home after her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline), asks her to come back and help the pair's daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life child), whose husband recently left her, sending Julie into a deep depressive state. When Ricki steps back into that life — where everybody calls her by the name "Linda," which she left behind as surely as her old life — she's confronted by just how much she hurt these people and just how short she's fallen of her dreams.
In many movies, this would be the start of an unlikely redemptive arc, as the character realized just how awful she was and recommitted herself, late in life, to the role of doting mother. Or it would be about her family finding its way to a kind of forgiveness, as it realizes how important it is to chase your dreams. Ricki and the Flash does neither. Instead, it charts a middle course that rings true.
People need a home where they can feel unconditionally loved. But they also need great bar bands to dance to. The choice is not either-or. Everybody can be more than one thing, and a mother can love her children deeply and still have to leave them.
So much of why the film works is thanks to its director
This tale is in keeping with the previous work of Cody, who's interested in presenting onscreen women who make the kinds of choices onscreen men make all the time without suffering repercussions. Cody's also good at flip-flopping the expected — the crunchy granola hippies of the film all live in Indiana, for instance, while Ricki is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who lives in a scuzzy apartment in the San Fernando Valley.
But the story is also in keeping with the works of the film's director, Jonathan Demme, one of the most humane comedy directors working. Most film fans will best known Demme for the film that won him an Oscar, The Silence of the Lambs. But before that film, the director reeled off a string of fantastic smaller films in the 1980s, mostly rambling comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob, which took their time to set up their casts and tell complex, human stories.
Demme also directed 2008's fantastic Rachel Getting Married, which shares certain structural similarities with Ricki. Both feature climactic weddings, for instance, and both are about women who keep disappointing their families, no matter what they do. But both films also largely hint at their backstory, rather than reveal it outright. And once they've laid out just what makes the characters tick, they spend time with the characters in all their flaws and pain, watching to see if they unravel.
But where Kim, the protagonist of Rachel, was young enough to still have a shot at changing her life, Ricki is largely left with the decisions she made so long ago. This means the central section where she looks around at what her life has become could feel directionless and without purpose. But this is precisely where Demme puts that shot of the dancers and the band, the reminder that sometimes life is made better by having some great music to accompany it.
The film's third act hits almost every beat you'd expect, but never quite in the way you'd think it would. The characters find their way to a kind of grace, but without wholly giving up on their justifiable hurt and pain. You can love someone and still hate what she's done to you, after all, and you can vacillate wildly between rage and deep empathy. Demme and Cody have deep feeling for these characters, but they also have very clear eyes about who these people are. That makes for a film that's warm and funny, yes, but also, above all else, wise.
Ricki and the Flash is playing in theaters throughout the country.