Mommie's Demons

A 10-year-old endeavors to save her manic mother in Rebecca Miller's Angela

In Angela, Anna Thomson's face looks like a smashed wedding cake: once a beautiful spectacle, now a shapeless ruin. Thomson plays Mae Levesque, a young woman whose pop-music aspirations have crumpled under the twin burdens of failure and family. Within the crushed shell of her beauty is a quivering, depressed waif whose moods shift violently from mania to fury to tears. Hope has abandoned her, and she feels it.

So does her family — a handsome, stable husband, Andrew (John Ventimiglia), and two daughters, 10-year-old Angela (Miranda Stuart Rhyne) and 6-year-old Ellie (Charlotte Blythe). They're all in orbit around Mae's dark star, and they're all touched by the poison of her depression, Angela in particular. She's a lovely, penetratingly observant girl who's old enough to understand that her mother isn't just “sad,” as Ellie supposes; Angela senses the profoundness of Mae's problems, and she spends the entire movie working out an explanation and a solution.

The picture was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller. She's given the movie a look of unself-conscious shabbiness that reflects the dimming of the Levesques' lives and prospects. The film was shot in the Hudson Valley — a place of natural grandeur in which the human presence seems, for the most part, mean and inelegant. Roads are dusty and muddy; sagging houses need paint; the woods are full of abandoned tires. In one scene the girls are taken by their baby sitter, Darlene (Hynden Walch), to the auto-wrecking yard where Frank (Rodger T. Phillips), the father of Darlene's unborn child, works: The surrounding trees are festooned with half-dismembered cars.

“How did the cars get in the trees?” Ellie asks in wonder.
“Tornado,” explains the laconic Frank.
The girls are under Darlene's daffy super-vision because Mae has put herself in the hospital after walking through a window, and Andrew must work. But Angela, though only 10, is too much for Darlene; she leads Ellie on an escape through a bathroom window, and the girls roam the town.

But Angela isn't just roaming. She's looking for clues to the struggle between good and evil, God and the devil, in which her mother is enmeshed as a pawn. Miller is interested in the way children use their imaginations to explain the inexplicable, and for Angela this means applying Christian dogma, as she understands it, to the problem of her mother. She believes that if she and Ellie are cleansed of “sin,” then Mae will get better.

She also believes that the devil lives in their run-down old house, and in a marvelous scene he appears in her bedroom, poised suggestively atop the bureau. He's an angelically handsome young man, with cold-cream-white skin, wings, and — the big clue — a cloven hoof. He's also wearing only a skimpy loincloth, and the camera follows Angela's gaze down his body, to a hand dangling loosely between his splayed legs.

Part of the power of Angela is its unawareness of the powerful sexual currents that in fact drive the movie. Angela's spiritual investigations are constantly bringing her into contact with men, all of whom seem to respond physically to her grave beauty and inquisitiveness. The film drifts steadily toward an episode of molestation — but that moment breaks up as soon as it arrives, and the issue never quite ripens.

Despite the humid summer weather — the girls wear lightweight dresses throughout, and the relentless gray skies promise thunderstorms to break the stifling heat — Angela feels chilly. In part this is because Miller has written Angela herself as a cold character: The girl's response to her mother's disintegration isn't sympathetic, but intellectual. Her answer isn't to throw Mae a hug and a kiss but to solve a metaphysical riddle. It's pretty plain that Angela could grow up to be some sort of philosopher or writer, with a big sexual appetite. But already, at age 10, she lacks the instinctive empathy of the politician or the conciliator.

The rest of the family aren't terribly engaging, either, despite their vast woes. Little Ellie is a credulous follower, but in both the movie's structure and her own development, she's no more than that; she hasn't yet assembled enough of a character to stand alone as a real individual.

Mae is certainly pathetic, but she's also desperately self-indulgent — and doomed. Thomson looks like a down-at-the-heels Marilyn Monroe, especially in her scarf and sunglasses; seeing her behind the wheel of the family's big old Ford wagon completes the picture of dissonance that's tearing her up. She's unsuited to be a mother, as she recognizes early in the film. “I don't feel anything for the girls anymore,” she solemnly tells Andrew, as their daughters eavesdrop through a heating grate.

While it's difficult to dislike a character capable of such brutal self-dissection, it's also difficult to like her. She's too sad — she should have been a bag lady, but missed even that gloomy chance. Instead she's buried alive in the country with a family she can't care about, and a mirror in which to watch her face rot.

Only Andrew gives off any real warmth. Ventimiglia has peasant good looks and a powerful body that promises safety, stability; if Angela is the movie's moral center, Andrew is its emotional one. He's like a character from another movie, a man from another life. When he wraps his big arms around his daughters, or Mae, it's as if the Levesques' white-trash nightmare must end. But it doesn't. It just gets unimaginably worse.

It is nice to see a film that doesn't end in a little hymn to the redemptive power of love. Whatever love is or isn't, it can't save the Levesques. The real demon among them isn't a lack of love, nor a sexy Satan in a loincloth, but the failure of hope, of expectations not just unfulfilled but unfulfillable. Rebecca Miller has stayed true to her vision of an America quite different from the happy land inhabited by hucksters in TV commercials: Hers is an abyss of moral and emotional impoverishment, with bright little girls peering dangerously over the edge.

Angela opens Fri, Feb. 9, at the Lumiere in

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