Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Life Unlived

Films: Rachel, Rachel
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I’ve commented in the past on the concept of coming-of-age movies and my singular problem with them. The tendency is that coming-of-age movies for boys involve coping with death and coming-of-age movies for girls involve coping with sex, often with someone wholly inappropriate. I get tired of these stories. So what to make of a coming-of-age story for a woman who is 35? That’s exactly the story we’re getting with Rachel, Rachel.

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35-year-old elementary school teacher still living in the house she grew up in with her mother (Kate Harrington), her father having died years before while she was in college. Rachel’s life is dominated by her mother, and in many ways, she is still terribly sheltered. Because of the presence of her mother, Rachel has never had a serious relationship and is completely naïve in terms of sex. Most things seem to be terrifying for her, although, Walter Mitty-like, she has a rich fantasy life.

As the film begins, the school year is at an end and Rachel has more or less resigned herself to another summer of feeling useless. She’s also starting to feel her age, believing herself to be at the midpoint in her life with no real indication that anything will ever change for her. She tells her work friend and fellow teacher Calla (Estelle Parsons) that once again she will spend her summer not getting a suntan and doing nothing but getting another year older. Calla, who a year earlier joined an aggressive church, tries to convince her to come to the next revival.

A lot of things happen all at once for Rachel. While her mother seems to think that things are fine and likes nothing more than gossiping about other people in the town. Meanwhile, Rachel encounters Nick Kazlik (James Olson), who she knew as a child. She decides to attend the revival with Calla and is overcome with emotion. Later, embarrassed, she tells Calla that she isn’t sure what happened and Calla begins to kiss her. Rachel responds by shutting herself off from her friend.

Eventually, she goes out with Nick, and while she is scared and naïve, she ultimately has her first real sexual experience. A sexual experience at 35 shouldn’t really mean much, but as this is a coming-of-age story, it changes a great deal of her life. She immediately begins to plan a life together with Nick, not realizing that for him, it was simply sex and not much more, which means that the relationship breaks apart almost as quickly as it began, and it breaks apart because Nick claims he is married when he actually isn’t. Rachel naturally thinks she is pregnant, something that will probably cost her her job and will cause no end of shame to her mother, and this further changes everything for Rachel.

Rachel, Rachel is interesting in a number of ways. It would be very easy for this film to ultimately be dark and oppressive, cynical and terrible. It’s not, though. In fact, while there are certainly dark moments in the film, many of which are a part of Rachel’s strange fantasy life, the film is actually pretty uplifting in a lot of ways. This is very much a coming-of-age that happens 15-20 years too late. Everything that happens to Rachel is what should be happening to someone 15-20 years old and experiencing the same emotions and events. Rachel’s experiences don’t, in fact, destroy her life, but begin it. Essentially, she has spent her life waiting for her life to begin, and suddenly, unexpectedly, it does. In that respect, the film is surprisingly sweet, even if it does have a tendency to dip into melodrama.

Paul Newman was a first-time director with Rachel, Rachel, and there are a few flashes of brilliance here. Truthfully, though, the brilliance is mostly shown in the film’s editing, with moments of fantasy world being laid over dialogue. Rachel comes home from her night with Nick and discovers her overbearing mother still awake. Her mother hasn’t taken her sleeping pill, and we’re given a second or two of Rachel shoving a handful of pills down her mother’s throat. These moments add a great deal to the character, and also help to guide the ship off those melodramatic rocks.

Joanne Woodward is excellent, but that’s no surprise. Like the film itself, Woodward has to walk a tightrope between drama and melodrama, with Rachel’s character wanting to pull her into melodrama time and time again. She manages to steer away from this deftly, keeping Rachel real but in constant fear of stepping out into her own life. It’s not an easy line to walk, but Woodward handles it like she was made to do it.

Rachel, Rachel isn’t an easy film. It’s not one I’d pick to watch that frequently, but it’s much better than I could have hoped it would be going in. The fact that it’s relatively uplifting and ends on a sense of hope and a life about to be lived my come off as corny or a bit maudlin, but it really works, and that more than anything speaks to the success of the film as a whole.

Why to watch Rachel, Rachel: Despite its plot, it’s surprisingly sweet and contains hints of optimism.
Why not to watch: It really wants to tip into melodrama.


  1. Since this is the type of picture that isn't really made for a mass audience anymore it's an interesting look back at a time when this was a genre still visited frequently but outside of that I can't say I liked the film very much.

    It's not badly directed and Joanne Woodward is wonderful, but then I expected that, but I thought it was dour and rather morose. I doubt that I'll watch again though I'm not sorry I gave it a shot.

    1. We seem to have had very different reactions to this film. I found it ultimately to be uplifting, although I agree that it's a rough road getting there. The closing moments, though, are entirely positive.