The Process of Reinvention

When the circumstances of our lives don’t suit us, it’s time to reinvent ourselves. However, that may be easier said than done in some instances. It’s a process that can be helped along with some assistance, but the root of such a transformation still arises from within us. And, thankfully, the hoped-for outcome can result from a variety of approaches, nearly all of which can sprout in their own unique, individualized way, with no inherent restrictions holding them back. Such is the case in the outrageously quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things” (web site, trailer).

Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) leads something of a dual life. Outwardly, the Victorian Era scientist lives a somewhat unorthodox but mostly respectable life teaching med students about anatomy and surgical techniques at a London college. In his private life, however, he’s considerably more eccentric and outlandish, conducting controversial experiments in animal cross-breeding and other highly taboo subjects, stitching together body parts in a manner not unlike that found on his own craggy, patchwork face. To most, he would probably be likened to a peer of Dr. Frankenstein, though, considering the degree of deliberate seclusion he has established for himself, most people would likely never know anything about that side of his persona. And, for his sake, that’s prudent in light of his most outrageous project, one that might overwhelm the most fertile of imaginations – not to mention the civil and moral sensibilities of much of society.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), the product of a questionable but bold scientific experiment, comes of age as she discovers the world around her in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance from director Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

While strolling through London one day, the doctor came upon an apparent suicide victim floating in the Thames at the base of one of the city’s bridges. He found the young, anonymous pregnant woman near death. She appeared to have no brain function, but her vital signs were clinging to life, a condition he believed he could work with in saving her from passing. His plan? Dr. Baxter decided to perform a brain transplant, removing the undamaged organ from the woman’s unborn child and placing it in the mother’s skull, subsequently enlivening it with a device designed to reanimate the victim.

As it turns out, the procedure worked, and thus Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) was “born.” There was just one hitch – even though Bella possessed the body of a full-grown woman, she had the brain of an infant. This combination left the doctor’s latest “creation” with a dearth of language and motor skills, as well as a fundamental lack of maturity and virtually no understanding of the wider world, conditions exacerbated by her existence being restricted to Baxter’s home. He was eager to see her grow and develop, but progress was decidedly slow. What was he to do?

As the film opens, the doctor comes to the conclusion that he might be able to further her development by compiling data about her skills, abilities and learning curve. But such an ambitious undertaking would require assistance, so he hires one of his students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to collect the information. When Max learns about the true nature of the task, though, he’s stunned. He’s both appalled and intrigued by what he finds, but he has trouble withdrawing from the assignment when he begins developing an attraction for his subject.

Bella’s progress initially continues slowly, even with Max’s observation and guidance. But the pacing accelerates markedly when she makes a discovery that astonishes her – an awareness of her own sexuality. It triggers something in her, prompting rapid advances in cognition, articulation and creativity. It also gives her tremendous pleasure, and that sense of arousal makes her ever more attractive to the young med student.

Victorian Era surgeon/scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, right) and his trusty med student assistant, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef, left), attempt to manage a questionable but bold experiment in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Godwin – whom Bella now calls “God” – notices the attraction between Bella and Max, even going so far as to suggest that they wed, provided they both agree to live in his home as Bella’s personal development continues. Despite the fact that she has made some progress, the doctor doesn’t believe she’s ready to venture out into the real world yet, even with Max to guide her. So, to ensure that his wishes are complied with in this venture, Baxter hires an attorney, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), to draw up a contract spelling out the terms.

But, just as matters seem to be falling into place, the arrival of the unscrupulous lawyer changes everything. Mr. Wedderburn, it seems, is quite a lusty, oily lech, taking an obsessive liking to Bella, who willingly returns those feelings in kind now that she’s discovered the libidinal side of her life. Bella and Duncan experience an explosion of carnal passion, and she readily accepts his invitation to join him on a trip to Lisbon. She promises Max that she’s still committed to him but that she wants an adventure in the real world before settling down with him for good. And, despite efforts by Godwin and Max to prevent her from leaving, she takes off with Duncan anyway.

Once free from her life of seclusion, Bella blossoms like a flower. She begins discovering her true self, growing ever wiser, more observant and more uninhibited in expressing herself and her singular view of the world. Unfortunately for Duncan, Bella’s growing sense of independence causes him frustration and distress he wasn’t prepared for. She wears him out sexually. She behaves in ways he finds embarrassing, particularly in public and in the company of others. And she frequently goes on unannounced adventures, leaving him alone and wondering where she is.

To rein Bella in, Duncan decides to book passage for the two of them on a Mediterranean cruise, believing that being aboard ship will keep her from straying. But this strategy backfires; she meets new and interesting people, such as Harry (Jerrod Carmichael) and Martha (Hanna Schygulla), an alternative couple who broaden Bella’s horizons, introduce her to philosophy and encourage her not to give in to the conventions of society, all of which nudge her further along her own path of personal exploration – and further away from Duncan.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone, left), the product of a questionable but bold scientific experiment, attempts to manage a lusty but stormy relationship with attorney Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, right) in the quirky new sci-fi/comedy/romance, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

That becomes particularly apparent when the couple – now in unexpected financial difficulty – is in Paris, where Bella takes a job as a working girl in a brothel run by a wily but insightful house mother, Mme. Swiney (Kathryn Hunter). It’s a place where the free-spirited traveler learns more about personal and sexual sovereignty from her peer and new best friend, Toinette (Suzy Bemba). In fact, as her journey continues, Bella comes into her own even more, leading her to become an astute, independent individual, a far cry from the person she once was and someone who now bows to no one. This developing attribute strengthens her capacity for personal growth and provides her with the common sense and street smarts she needs to get by, especially in a surprise confrontation with an old nemesis (Christopher Abbott).

But where will all this lead? What will happen to Bella’s relationship (such as it is) with Duncan? And what will become of Godwin and Max back in London as their subject continues to roam about freely on her own? Is Bella’s experience something to be concerned about or celebrated? Indeed, will Dr. Baxter’s “experiment” prove to be a failure or a success beyond his wildest dreams? That all remains to be seen as this remarkable odyssey plays out.

Reinvention is a process that can ask much of us, and that’s especially true for someone like Bella given the unique circumstances under which this transformation began and emerged. Despite the beneficial assistance she receives from Godwin and Max, her experience shows us just how much of this change rests with us in our acts and deeds, as well as – most importantly – our beliefs, for they shape the existence that results. It’s hard to say whether Bella or any of her cohorts have heard of this school of thought, but, as events unfold, it becomes apparent how much and how deftly she puts it to use in defining herself and generating the new life she leads.

Bella’s experience in working with her emerging beliefs is, admittedly, something of an exercise in trial and error. Some initiatives work, while others need to be revamped. But what’s most impressive is that, like her own innate nature, she’s not afraid to experiment, to try out new things to see where they take her, all in the belief that the experiences will ultimately serve her well as she hones the path she wants to pursue, no matter how unconventional some of her notions may seem. This is a perspective that would likely prove valuable to anyone seeking to retool, even if matters take some time to sort out and refine. In this regard, then, Bella essentially becomes an unlikely teacher for all of us.

Lecherous lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) bites off more than he can chew when he embarks on a passionate but frustrating relationship with an independently minded partner in the latest from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things.” Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

I find it intriguing that her greatest growth spurts come about as a result of her discovery of her own sexuality. Some may find this strange or unduly provocative, yet it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us when we think about the underlying nature of one’s erotic side. Sexuality, at its core, is an inherently creative act, one designed to give us pleasure, new experiences, and, perhaps eventually, the creation of new life. Even if some or all of these are not the desired intent, the practice of exploring this part of ourselves could (and, in fact, often does) inspire us to pursue our overall capacity for creativity, regardless of the particular areas of our lives in which it’s employed. It can potentially encompass everything from the creation of artistic works to the way we live our lives and everything in between. What matters most, though, is that we freely exercise this aspect of ourselves as intrinsically creative beings in the exploration and/or reinvention of our existence, no matter what area of reality we may choose to investigate.

Bella is not the only one who engages in this endeavor, either. The same could be said, for example, of the good doctor, whose experiments – while not for everyone – embody the notion of belief-driven creative exploration. Max, in his own way, follows suit, as he comes out of his shell and begins adopting a more open-minded approach to his life, his career and his capacity for romance. And, of course, similar outlooks are more than apparent in the lives of Harry, Martha, Mme. Swiney and Toinette, all of whom are not afraid to chart their own courses with their own brands of creativity and singular insights. Given these charismatic influences, it’s easy to see why Bella is so drawn to them and away from those – like Duncan and his friends – who are more innately conventional in their mindsets, expectations and lifestyles.

While the creative exploration of our beliefs and personal selves should be of paramount importance to us under any circumstances, it’s particularly crucial in this story in light of its historic time frame and the individuals involved. The Victorian Era was not especially welcoming to innovative thoughts and deeds, nor was it particularly accommodating to women. In an age where men ruled virtually everything and women were typically treated more like property than people, Bella’s determined, almost defiant acts of finding herself, exploring her individuality, and, accordingly, openly expressing her true being are remarkably courageous and inspiring undertakings to be commended. One could hope that the example she set would rub off on others, too, setting the stage for them to follow in her footsteps as reinvented, empowered individuals. That’s especially true for women eager to unapologetically be themselves, those who are unwilling to capitulate to others and refuse to be relegated to the status of “poor things.”

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) seeks to be a woman who comes into her own in “Poor Things,” now playing theatrically. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima, courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

The process of reinvention is something that happens both literally and metaphorically in this latest offering from director Yorgos Lanthimos. But the way that result comes about here represents a truly inspired fusion of genres, including comedy, romance, social commentary and sci-fi, making for one of the most inventive, unusual and hilarious releases of recent years. This offbeat feminist fable, based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, pushes the envelope of convention, exposing viewers to a wide range of ideas and outlooks for fulfilling the aforementioned goal and serving it up with hefty doses of absurdist humor. While the film’s pacing could use some shoring up in the middle, this offering nevertheless entertains with alternative insights and uproarious laughs throughout, even when the narrative turns more thoughtful and substantive. The superb performances by Stone, Dafoe and Ruffalo are undeniably top shelf, all of them earning well-deserved awards season accolades, with more undoubtedly to come. The film is also visually stunning in its cinematography and editing, as well as in its spectacular and whimsical production design, filled with vibrant images reminiscent of the movies of Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam while sustaining a look all its own. Admittedly, this release features a good deal of explicit sexuality, both visually and in the dialogue, so sensitive and easily offended viewers should take note. However, as one of the most anticipated pictures of this year’s awards season, “Poor Things” never disappoints, serving up a solid offering that consistently tickles the funny bone while giving audiences much to think about – and there’s nothing poor in any of that.

For its efforts, “Poor Things” has earned seven Golden Globe Award nominations for best picture (musical or comedy), director, actress (musical or comedy) (Stone), supporting actor (Ruffalo and Dafoe), screenplay and original score. On top of that, the film has also captured a whopping 13 Critics Choice Award nominations for best picture, comedy picture, director, actress (Stone), supporting actor (Ruffalo), adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, production design, original score, visual effects, costume design, and hair and makeup. In addition, this release has garnered three honors from the National Board of Review for best supporting actor (Ruffalo) and adapted screenplay, as well as one of the year’s Top 10 Films. “Poor Things” is currently playing theatrically in general release.

Coming into our own is difficult enough, even under the best of circumstances. But shifting to something new and more acceptable after we thought we had things sorted out can be considerably more exasperating, especially if we have no clue what to do next. However, by keeping an open mind, having the courage to experiment and being willing to freely express ourselves, we just might find the process to be easier to manage, perhaps even becoming an amusing and gratifying adventure. There’s much to be experienced and enjoyed in this paradigm we call existence, and a good deal of it could suit us well when looking for new ways to live our lives. Bella clearly understands that, so, if we’re dissatisfied with where we’re at, perhaps we should consider following her lead. After all, what do we have to lose but a whole lot of unhappiness and discontent? And, in light of what we stand to gain, that sounds like quite a bargain indeed.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

New Movies for a New Year

Join yours truly and show host Frankie Picasso for looks at four new films, as well as a few surprises, on the upcoming New Year’s movie review edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast, to begin airing on a special day and time, Tuesday January 2 at 1 pm ET. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

In Search of the Whole Truth

Is it possible to know the real truth behind a particular situation? It’s often been said that, as outside onlookers, we only see a fraction of what’s involved in the unfolding of a specific scenario. And, because of that, we might well piece together an incomplete view of things, based primarily on what we believe about them, given that they shape our perspective and, subsequently, the materialized existence that emerges. The outcome may present us with a somewhat accurate depiction of those manifested notions, but how on target is that picture? That’s the core question raised in the engaging new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”) (web site, trailer).

Revealing too much about the nature of this film would ultimately expose too much about it. Suffice it to say, however, the picture presents its narrative in several overlapping, interconnected segments, all of them related but each nevertheless distinct in its own right. Collectively, they explore the same scenario from a variety of perspectives, but each only presents a portion of the overall story, something that isn’t fully revealed until film’s end, when all of the pieces are at last drawn together. It’s a storytelling technique that was first, and perhaps best, presented in director Akira Kurosawa’s innovative screen classic, “Rashômon” (1950), and has been eloquently replicated here by a new generation Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu.

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando, right) faces her share of behavioral challenges with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa, left), in the multi-segmented new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), the latest from director Kore-eda Hirokazu. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The picture’s opening sequence focuses on the exasperating challenges that single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) faces with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), who has developed a reputation for acting out. She witnesses some of this behavior firsthand, but much of what allegedly happens comes her way as a result of after-the-fact evidence, much of it delivered by way of the unreliable word of others. In light of that, she must often ask herself, how much can she trust what she hears or finds? Minato is her son, after all, and she wants to protect him against unfounded or unfair accusations, some of which appear to lack credibility or adequate explanation. That’s particularly true when Minato’s teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), is accused of excessive discipline in response to one of the youngster’s outbursts against another student, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), an incident cryptically explained away by the school’s principal, Mrs. Fushimi (Yuho Tanaka), herself a figure of questionable character. Still, given Minato’s behavior, many are quick to paint him with broad brush strokes as a devious little monster. But is he?

In the second segment, the focus shifts to Mr. Hori, who, as viewers discover, is a new teacher at Minato’s school. He’s eager to be starting this new job and looks forward to making a favorable impression on the students, their parents and the administrators. He’s also starting a new relationship with Hirona (Mitsuki Takahata), with whom he’s quite taken. However, not long after beginning work at the school, he notices that Yori is apparently being picked on by bullies, something the teacher believes must be difficult for the small, sweet young boy to handle. He takes an interest in the student’s well-being, even going so far as to visit the youth’s family, where he finds him being raised by a drunken, seemingly intolerant father (Shido Nakamura). So, in light of these factors, Hiro quietly assumes the role of a de facto protector, and, when he witnesses the aftermath of an apparent incident involving Yori and Minato, he steps up and takes action. But is his response appropriate? And what do the school administrators like Mrs. Fushimi and Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta) think about it, particularly in light of the impression his actions might leave on skeptical parents, including both Saori and others? In the wake of these developments, Hori is quickly on his way to becoming a pariah, and his life begins falling apart, both personally and professionally. Indeed, is he the monster here?

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) seeks answers from those who allegedly impose excessive discipline on her troubled preteen son in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

In the final sequence, the narrative shifts to the relationship between Yori and Minato, which is not at all what others have been led to believe it is. It seems that Mr. Hori is not the only bodyguard that Yori has. But that’s because there’s more to the boys’ relationship than anyone knows. And, when they mysteriously disappear, their absence raises more questions than ever before. Add to that several other cryptic developments that impact the overarching storyline, such as the breakout of a major fire at a nearby high-rise gentlemen’s club and the landfall of a typhoon, and the mystery deepens further. From this, it immediately becomes apparent that no one could possibly have had a clear picture of what’s been going on all along, that the pieces of the puzzle are simply that – pieces of a larger whole that nobody understands.

Only when all of the pieces are assembled – providing a coalescent view of the whole that goes beyond the postulated beliefs of individual onlookers – can anyone know the whole truth of this scenario. Whether anyone is able to reach such a realization, however, depends on being able to envision the accumulation of all of the situation’s separate parts. And that can happen only when we leave ourselves open to such a possibility, one specifically driven by beliefs that allow it. While that may sound implausible to some, it’s not, thanks to the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s unclear how many of us may have heard of this school of thought, but a lack of awareness of it doesn’t rule out its validity for attaining such an outcome.

The implications in this can be staggering. That’s particularly true in the area of judgment (or, more precisely, in the area of judgmentalism). If we were to judge a situation based entirely on our beliefs with little or no hard evidence to back up such conjecture (especially if the speculation only relates to one aspect of the overall scenario), we could be making harsh, irrational or erroneous assessments of the circumstances. And that, in turn, could lead to dire ramifications for those most affected by these ill-informed conclusions.

Recently hired teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama, right) comes under harsh scrutiny from school administrators like Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta, left) for allegedly dispensing excessive discipline against a troubled preteen in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

Think of the impact that could be leveled against those falsely accused (and convicted) in these situations. Is Minato truly the little monster that many contend he is? Or is he simply a misunderstood young man whose actions and behavior have another unseen or mistaken intent underlying them? Conversely, consider the fallout that can result when our beliefs inadvertently lead to us giving a pass to those deserving of deeper scrutiny. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like getting away with murder, the absence of corpses notwithstanding. And, as this story shows, there are several potential culprits in the narrative whose actions and behavior merit a closer look, their deeds coming close to appearing somewhat monstrous themselves.

There are concerns for the accusers in scenarios like this as well. Consider the consequences for those making and pressing incorrect and unfair claims against the supposed suspects. Think of the guilt and potential liabilities that could stem from inflicting such misplaced suspicions. The impact might readily boomerang against those making such accusations, and where would that leave them then?

This is not to suggest that our beliefs don’t have merit in these instances. After all, they’re the building blocks of the reality we create for ourselves. However, we should recognize that they’re the starting point, not the end point, of this process in any of our endeavors, including discovering the truth behind a particular scenario. The role they play here is in pointing us toward the evidence needed to back up our contentions, not the means to verify and validate the innate truth behind them. Is it any wonder, then, that our judicial system calls for the revelation of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” It would seem that this is a wise outlook not just for a court of law, but also for the court of public opinion – not to mention the internal court of our beliefs.

Grade school classmates Minato Mugino (Soya Kurokawa, right) and Yori Hoshikawa ((Hinata Hiiragi, left) are at the center of a widely misunderstood scenario with far-ranging implications in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s multi-segmented new drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The perspective from which we view a situation infallibly provides us with a clear, irrefutable picture of its truthfulness, right? But what happens if we encounter someone who witnesses the same incident and comes away from it with a totally different interpretation? Both views can’t be “right,” can they? Or is it possible that none of us can see the totality of a scenario and claim to know everything about it? That’s the core takeaway from this captivating dramatic feature, an ambitious, skillfully crafted tale told from multiple vantage points, all of them “correct” in their own right, despite the myriad differences that distinguish them from one another. Director Kore-eda’s cinematic homage to his famed countryman Kurosawa carefully spins a web combining the picture’s various story threads, reminding us of the old adage of not judging a book by its cover, poignantly illustrating that, no matter how much we may think we know about a particular situation, there’s a good chance we’ll never get a complete picture of it. Kore-eda serves up an eye-opening tale, one that gives us pause to think about our impressions and preconceptions in an age when many of us are all too quick to superficially judge what we see – and in a frequently flawed framework at that. The picture could stand to be a little more swiftly paced at times (especially in the final act), but this is arguably the director’s best and most sensitive work to date, one that, we can only hope, will have the kind of profound impact we need in an age where open-mindedness and tolerance are traits we could all stand to develop to a much greater degree – particularly when pieces of the puzzle are missing. 

“Monster” has earned its share of accolades, especially at 2023’s film festivals. At the Cannes Film Festival, the picture took home the Queer Palm Award and the trophy for best screenplay, as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. It was later recognized with the Gold-Q Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. While this offering has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, it has recently been distributed in limited theatrical release, primarily at arthouse cinemas.

Getting to the truth of a matter is something we shouldn’t take lightly. We may never know what’s involved until we take a good hard look at all of the elements involved, particularly those that go beyond the beliefs we hold, no matter how comprehensive we might think they are. Not only will doing so get us to the meat of such matters, but it can also tell us something about ourselves, revealing prejudices, blind spots and aspects of who we are and what we believe when it comes to our dealings with others. We might discover that we possess assumptions that we automatically and unhesitatingly employ, without question or analysis, giving us distorted pictures of the situations and people we face. And one can hardly say there’s any truth in that.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

For Better or Worse


The now-famous opening line of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – has become virtually synonymous for describing situations that are simultaneously both joyous yet difficult. In many ways, this is a scenario that seems almost unfathomable, one whose very existence is hard to imagine, let alone endure. Yet many among us have nevertheless experienced such challenging, ironic and contradictory conditions, circumstances that ultimately push us to find the means to survive and to overcome the ordeals posed to us so that we can truly enjoy the best of what life has to offer while putting the worst behind us. Such is the situation faced by an eminently successful, exceptionally creative, deeply enamored power couple in the moving, intimate and captivating new documentary, “American Symphony” (web site, trailer).

Life in 2022 was a decidedly strange and mixed bag for musician-composer Jon Batiste and his wife, best-selling author Suleika Jaouad. They indeed experienced the best and worst of times. It was a landmark year for Batiste. Coming off Oscar, Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Award wins in 2021 for co-writing the best original score for the animated film “Soul,” he went on to capture five Grammy Awards the following year (including record of the year), all the while serving as band leader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The multi-talented, multifaceted, New Orleans-born artist also worked on completing an eclectic, ambitious composition aimed at reflecting the breadth of our national music, diversity and culture, American Symphony, drawing upon his expertise in an array of musical genres. It was the kind of year that most artists dream of.

However, in the midst of this success, the couple underwent one of the greatest challenges they’ve ever had to face. Jaouad suffered a relapse of the cancer she experienced in 2011, a case of acute myeloid leukemia, an illness that doctors gave her only a 35% chance of surviving at that time. Despite these odds, though, Jaouad pulled through and began writing a column titled “Life, Interrupted” for The New York Times. She went on to become a contributor to Vogue, Glamour and Women’s Health magazines, as well as National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. And, in 2021, she penned The New York Times best-selling memoir Between Two Kingdoms, an account of her battle with cancer as a young adult. How ironic that what helped her become a successful author would come back to haunt her again, just as she and her husband were attaining such tremendous personal and creative achievements. Instead, she was now facing the prospect of a risky bone marrow transplant to survive.

Then there was the matter of their relationship, a deeply loving, eminently attentive, fully committed devotion to one another. They met as teenagers in band camp and became involved romantically in 2014. And, as this movie shows, rarely has there ever been an on-screen depiction of two partners more dedicated to one another than what is shown here. Their feelings for one another quite obviously run deep, although those emotions are genuine and realistic, never storybook nor sugar-coated, especially under the circumstances they faced with Jaouad’s troubling diagnosis.

Given these diversely contrasting conditions, it almost seemed like life was dealing Jon and Suleika a cruel joke. How could they enjoy their success with a cloud like this hanging over them? Indeed, how could fate be so relentlessly punishing? And, what’s more, what were they supposed to do about it? Those are huge questions, to be sure. But how can they be effectively answered?

The weight of these circumstances was crushing. And, even though Jaouad was receiving top-notch care, there was only so much that she and Batiste could do tangibly. Because of that, they consequently had to turn inward and tap into their thoughts, beliefs and intents to encourage the emergence of a positive outcome. This meant meditating upon that result, as well as drawing upon the power of prayer to bring it about. In essence, this is a school of thought that maintains these intangibles can be employed to manifest the means and conditions for realizing what we seek. It’s unclear whether the couple had heard of this way of thinking, but, based on their actions and practices, it’s apparent they believed it could be tapped to yield their hoped-for outcome.

As the film illustrates, there were many times during this ordeal where both partners turned reflective on their circumstances, undoubtedly pleading for a way out of it. But there was more to it than taking such proactive steps to achieve this objective. They also turned to various forms of support, like counselors and family members, to bolster them at times when it was deemed necessary. This provided them with encouragement and coping mechanisms to get through the most critical times. This tactic thus took the form of a collaboration, an empowered act of co-creation that lends added energy and backing to the attainment of a mutual goal.

In a similar, if not more significant vein, there was also the undeniable love between Jon and Suleika. This, too, is a form of mutual support and another form of collaboration. It might even be argued that this was perhaps the most effective “medicine” at work in this scenario, more potent than any form of chemotherapy could provide. Add to that the beliefs in health and recovery that they’re each emitting, and those are some powerful vibes at work.

Of course, even with these potent intangible forces at work, one probably can’t help but wonder how and why this illness manifested in the first place. In all honesty, we may never know, and the same might possibly be said for both Jon and Suleika. Their reasons are their own, and it’s not our place to question them. But there are several theoretical possibilities to consider.

For instance, it’s often been said in metaphysical circles that illness can be a tremendous teacher. There are things we can learn about life and ourselves under those circumstances that we might not be able to explore under any other conditions. Ill health can prompt us to examine alternate modes of healing, something we can engage in more readily in scenarios like this in light of the fact that our consciousness is likely focused almost exclusively on getting well and uncovering the means to achieve it. What’s more, this kind of downtime may afford us an opportunity to partake of other types of creative endeavors, much as Suleika does in the film when she tries her hand at painting. And, as Suleika’s previous experience with illness illustrates, it could open doors to future opportunities, such as the successful writing career that grew out of her first bout with cancer. But, perhaps most importantly, an introspective time like this can prove quite revelatory, showing us qualities of ourselves we never knew we possessed, such as strength of character, resilience and the will to overcome adversity.

For Jon’s part, there are additional possibilities to consider. For instance, as much and as long as he and Suleika have long been in love, the depth of their feelings for one another only deepened through this experience, drawing them closer together than ever before. As seen here, the emotions they feel for one another are palpable, reaching a point where their status as soul mates is impossible to ignore. As for Jon individually, this experience could also be said to be something that keeps him grounded, immersing him firmly in what’s most important in life and preventing him from letting his success get away from him. That’s not to suggest that would happen even if conditions were different, but circumstances like these have a way of helping us keep our heads, particularly with what matters most to us.

For all of the artistic achievements on display here, though, the most beautiful creation is the love between Jon and Suleika, for better or worse. They have taken an intangible concept and made it real, for all to see, something that many of us should hope to emulate in our own romantic endeavors. If nothing else, this is the takeaway we should embrace – and, in the end, make our own.

Creating a heartfelt, loving relationship is much like producing a great work of art. Both take effort and commitment, both in good times and bad. The challenges involved in learning how to successfully maneuver through them can be difficult, but the rewards can be incalculable, as documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s latest so deftly illustrates. These are attainable goals, outcomes that can provide tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment, the prevailing highs and lows notwithstanding. The polar opposite fates that befell Batiste and Jaouad may have been a struggle to get through, but they vowed to keep their love and art alive, putting their personal and professional successes and setbacks into perspective in light of what they were up against. This intimate, heartstring-tugging documentary gives viewers a candid, up-close look at what a truly loving couple can experience under such diverse, trying and bittersweet circumstances, but without becoming manipulative or melodramatic. This beautifully photographed story provides an unfiltered depiction of the range of emotions that each partner goes through, particularly when it comes to its musings of the philosophical insights observed by each of the spouses. It also showcases Batiste’s wide-ranging musical styles, both in his performances and in his composition process. Admittedly, a few of this offering’s sequences meander a bit, but the overall production is skillfully edited and sensitively portrayed, reinforcing what makes life worth living, during both good times and bad, as long as we have each other to make our way through it, bringing new meaning to what our marriage vows are ultimately all about.

“American Symphony” was widely recognized in 2023 film festival and movie critic association competitions. Most notably, the picture captured two Critics Choice Documentary Awards for best music documentary and best score, along with four nominations for best documentary feature, director, editing and cinematography, all noteworthy accolades for a film that’s well worth your time. This offering is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

In good times and bad, it’s always comforting to have a companion along for the journey. That’s more than apparent in “American Symphony.” Jon and Suleika set an inspiring example for what it truly means to be a loving couple, one that anybody seeking to find for themselves should follow and make their own – undoubtedly the best of times.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2023-2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.