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:
- didacticism supersedes conflict
- the sacramental imagination appears atrophied
- 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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