Movie Review: October Baby

 

As I walked in and out of the screening of October Baby I attended last evening, young people were already queuing up for the midnight opening show of The Hunger Games. There is an enormous cultural chasm, I would imagine, between those devotees of The Hunger Games and the Christian pro-life world of those of us who attended October Baby. The regret I felt as I stepped over the Hunger Games audience toward my car at the end of the evening is that October Baby as a film is not designed to be very effective in bridging that chasm.

I stress, as a film. October Baby has a beautiful message. 19 year-old Hannah (played by Rachel Hendrix), discovers that she is the survivor of a botched abortion, a discovery that sends her on a quest for her birth mother. Along the way, she comes to a deeper understanding of her own and of each and every human life, and of the need to extend forgiveness to those whose poor decisions have hurt her.

The problem is that this message is couched within a meandering narrative with little real conflict, full of excessive, on-the-nose dialogue, and an annoying penchant for cranking up the songs with the oh-so-meaningful lyrics whenever the director wants to make sure (which is constantly) that we don’t miss his emotional point.

Little real conflict, I say? What about Hannah’s conflict with her parents when she discovers that they haven’t told her about her birth origin? What about the conflict between Hannah and her birth mother? What about the conflict between Hannah and Jason, the boy whom she clearly loves but, in her anxiety, keeps pushing away?

These are conflicts, yes. But the trouble with October Baby is that it chooses, at every crucial turn in the narrative, to present these conflicts in heart-to-heart conversations between two of the characters. Apparently unknown to the filmmakers is the basic Aristotelian maxim that action, not dialogue, is character, and therefore the source of emotional richness. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has mastered this fundamental precept of storytelling, which is one of the key reasons why the film based on her book is opening on over 4,000 screens this weekend, while October Baby is opening on less than 400.

Once the basic narrative through-line is established in October Baby (Hannah’s quest to find her birth mother), the filmmakers are left with the challenge of filling in the interim space. What they give us is a series of episodes filled with skirmishes between the characters with minimal progression in the overall conflict, as well as scene after scene of talk.

Well-meaning films such as October Baby will continue to fail artistically as long as they continue to construct narratives around heart-to-heart conversations laden with on-the-nose dialogue. By on-the-nose dialogue, I mean dialogue in which characters speak words that express precisely the thoughts and emotions they are feeling, with no sub-text, no evasion, no nuance–and October Baby is full to the brim with it. And some of these heart-to-heart conversations are wildly implausible (the cop’s unsolicited counsel to Hannah; Hannah’s conversation with the priest in the cathedral). But the filmmakers are content to bend plausibility entirely out of shape as long as they are able to put two characters in a scene in which they are able to bear their souls to one another.

The result is a film that is sappy, preachy, and in the end, boring.

October Baby thus continues in the mistaken vein of other well-intended Christian films such as Fireproof and Courageous. It is a vein in which:

  1. didacticism supersedes conflict
  2. the sacramental imagination appears atrophied
  3. the key moment of grace lacks punch due to the absence of a significant, paradoxical action through which grace flows

(Those wishing to hear more from me on these points may advert to these notes from a talk I gave last Fall on the perils of faith-based filmmaking to a conference organized by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.)

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  • MIke Lawless

    There is such a thing as a well-made movie based on Christian themes that appeal to a broad audience. A few of my favorites include “The Song of Bernadette”, 1943  (won 4 oscars, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones, 8 other nominations, including 3 supporting roles, director, and best picture, and won 3 Golden Globes, including actress, director and best picture); “A Man for All Seasons”, 1966 (won both Oscar and Golden Globe for best actor, director, picture and adapted screenplay, plus 2 other Oscars, and 2 other Oscar nominations for supporting roles); “Becket”, 1964 (won Oscar for adapted screenplay, 11 other nominations including 3 actors, director and picture, won Golden Globe for best actor, 3 other nominations include actor, picture and director); “The Shoes of the Fisherman” 1968 (2 Oscar nominations, won a Golden Globe plus nomination for best picture); and of course, “The Passion of the Christ” 2004 (3 Oscar nominations, won People’s Choice Award for Favorite Motion Picture Drama). It’s worth noting that of those, all but “The Shoes of the Fisherman” were based on true stories, and it could be said, sort of, that a true story was based on “Shoes of the Fisherman,” which was about a Russian former gulag prisoner who eventually was elected Pope, which had a lot of striking parallels with the story of Pope John Paul II. It’s also worth noting that all of these pictures, with the exception of “The Passion of the Christ,” are not only Christian-themed, but more specifically, Catholic-themed.

  • Amy

    Mike, I agree with you and I like your list.  However, none of those movies is very recent.  The sorts of films which are now getting made and lauded by Christians (of the “Fireproof” and “October Baby” variety) seem to be born of a Christian subculture and seem only to get rave reviews from those who understand the world view of the producers.  These recent efforts will never bridge the culture gap. They do succeed in making those of us who already agree with the message of the film feel better about ourselves.  No doubt they might reach a few unconvicted hearts in the way that any powerful preacher or a good retreat might do, but they won’t lift the imagination and heart to God with the power of a good work of art such as the “Song of Bernadette.”

    I, too, saw “October Baby” on Thursday evening with my 16 year old daughter, Clearly she is more the intended demographic than me.  I found it instructive that she thought it was a good message, but “kinda lame and preachy.”  She clearly didn’t think kids at her high school who were not already “living and breathing pro-life stuff” would think much of the movie.It is time for a Catholic renewal in film making.  I echo the question posed by Harold Fickett in a recent combox comment:  Where are the Cathoic investors in  this battle front of the Culture Wars?

    Blessed John Paul, pray for artists!

  • bronwyn

    I enjoyed all of the films mentioned…except October Baby which I haven’t seen yet. I did see some other pro-life films which I loved including “Bella” and perhaps not intentionally pro-life “Juno”. There are good storytellers who use the medium of film to create excellent and thought-provoking films. I am currently watching films that focus on the lives of saints and so far, most have been Made in Italy. Our family watched films on Saint Anthony, Saint Padre Pio, Saint Rita, Maria Goretti, and in English Saint Therese of Liseaux, Mother Teresa of Culcutta, and tonight it’ll be the story of Esther, although the title is a double entendre…One Night with the King. We should support good films even though my eldest went out with her friends last night to watch The Hunger Games. The tickets were preordered by her friend’s father

  • JL

    Yes, of course. October Baby is only on 400 screens while The Hunger Games is on 4000 because of poorly written dialogue. It certainly has nothing to do with October Baby being a prolife movie, making it toxic to many in the film industry. It also certainly has absolutely nothing to do with special effects and the mountain of hype surrounding THG. If only Hannah carried around a bow and arrow and shot her blonde rival with it, while not speaking and expressing her emotions through her actions, October Baby would be showing on 4000 screens!

    Besides, everybody knows that A Man For All Seasons was a terrible movie. It would have been much better if Sir Thomas had to fight off an alien invasion. That would get the kids into the theaters.

  • october papa

    I only recently saw october baby on DVD based on a recomendation from my brother. I loved it. It has so many positive messages for our world today. It sure made me feel very lucky to be born into a loving family. This healing story needed to be told to the broken world we live in. I would recommend it to everyone.

    Every life is beautiful! I’m very happy to see someone trying to change the uglyness in our world. I would be ashamed to be a Catholic and not be promoting, in every way we can, getting rid of the hedious crime of abortion.
    I’m also proud of the abortion survivers trying to bring this issue to the attention of the public.

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