The Familiar Familial Fractures of The Savages

Movies Features Tamara Jenkins
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The Familiar Familial Fractures of The Savages

I haven’t spoken to my sister in 13 years. That still feels odd to say. Thirteen years. I can vividly remember the sensation of her hand wrapped around my neck, her nails digging deep into my throat, and wondering how I was going to get myself to a place of safety. Whenever I start to consider an attempt to reforge our relationship, that’s immediately what my mind goes back to. I can’t shake it.

We always bring ourselves into the films that we watch, experiencing them through the lens of our own histories and relationships with the world, so it makes sense that anytime I’m watching a story centered around a sibling relationship, my sister is heavy on my mind. Often it’s a feeling of jealousy, a pang of ache because the film is focused on siblings who have an affection and a bond between them that I was never able to feel. Sometimes, though, there’s a film that hits particularly deep due to the complicated, messy nature of that dynamic, as is the case with Tamara Jenkins’ 2007 feature, The Savages.

The relationship in the film between Wendy (Laura Linney) and her older brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t exactly reflect my own. While we don’t get much backstory on how these two became somewhat estranged, it does seem like there was a base level of connection between them in their early days. That hadn’t been the case for me. We’ll skip the many years of minute details, but the gist is that things weren’t great for us growing up. A few years ago, I was asked by a therapist “When was a time you can remember your family being happy together?” and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t conjure up a single instance. I’ve always maintained to my mother that the best thing my parents did for me and my sister was to get divorced. It was the first moment where I thought, maybe, I could breathe. After 14 or so years of hearing them fight, there was at last a little reprieve.

The difficulties took a different path from there, however, as my father moved to a different state and my mother was working all hours while trying to raise two teenagers more or less on her own, along with going through her personal mourning and healing process after finally getting out of a decades-long abusive marriage. My sister, who’s almost four years older than me, and I were left to fend for ourselves in many ways, especially when it came to emotional grappling with everything our childhoods had unloaded on us. The results? Not too pretty.

She acted out by constantly bringing home myriad friends and pets without asking the consent of anyone else, so consumed with her own perspective that she had no regard for others—the case for all of us in the family, who resorted to looking after ourselves first and foremost. I continued to do what I had learned from the many nights of hearing my parents shouting at each other right outside my door: I isolated, quiet and alone in my room. Things were destined to come to a boiling point. Our lifestyles clashed and we didn’t have any examples of healthy conflict resolution. One night, I brought home a girlfriend that my sister demanded I get out of the house. When I refused, things became violent.

After the incident, I snuck out my window and went to stay at a friend’s house. I remained there until my parents finally sold our house and I was able to move into an apartment with my mom, while my sister went to live with my dad. It was the last time I spoke with my sister. I’m 32 years old now, and still not sure when or if that’ll ever change.

Watching The Savages, as I’ve done many times since first seeing it in theaters (with my mother, no less), is a guarantee to drum up the many feelings and questions I have about my relationship with my sister. Wendy and Jon didn’t have quite the dramatic falling out that my sister and I did, yet their story isn’t too dissimilar: An abusive father, a mother who wasn’t around to help them in the fallout, and many years of distance. Both siblings moved on with their lives and retreated into their own worlds, their trauma rendering them incapable of feeling any sense of family. They’re so disconnected from their blood that an event most people spend years preparing for comes as a seismic shock to the two of them.

Jenkins’ film looms even larger for me considering how this event, the film’s main narrative thrust, revolves around a transition in life that may just be the most likely scenario in which my sister and I finally have to communicate again. When their father Lenny (Philip Bosco) slips into dementia, and his girlfriend he’s living with passes, Wendy wakes Jon up in the middle of the night. Their father is writing on the walls with his shit and the two New Yorkers must go to Arizona, where he’s been living for 20 years, to pick him up and figure out what to do with him. “Don’t leave me alone with this,” Wendy pleads.

The Savages follows not only their journey to find a facility that will house their father and give him some level of care and comfort that they don’t have the capacity to provide, but also their emotional journey. They must reconcile with having to take care of a man who caused them so much pain—to the point where they’ve barely spoken to him in years, and clearly struggle to form any kind of relationships in their personal lives. Wendy is having an affair with a married man living in her building. Jon has been living with his girlfriend for three years, but her visa is expiring and she’s moving back to Poland because he simply refuses to marry her.

I certainly had a “my parents are young and strong and going to live forever” mentality until I hit that big 30, when, immediately, it began to settle in that I’m getting older and so are they. Particularly after watching my mother and her siblings going through the process of figuring out how to care for their parents, both of whom have suffered from dementia, mortality often rattles around in my brain these days—a perpetual fear of how I’m going to help take care of them when I still haven’t figured out how to take care of myself.

The Savages explores this passage in life in exquisite detail, with Jenkins (whose parents both had dementia and were in nursing homes late in their lives) making a concerted effort to not doll her film up with the schmaltz and sentimentality that Hollywood films tackling this subject matter often drench themselves in. Her film is scabrously funny at times, but even the humor comes from its reckoning with the ugliness of life.

As Jon and Wendy work to find the best facility for their father, Wendy is in constant denial of just how severe his condition is. She attempts to get him into homes that would require a far greater level of self-sufficiency. Jon, the more practical of the two, eventually gets fed up and unloads on her in the parking lot after an interview to get their father into one of these places goes poorly.

“People are dying, Wendy!” he shouts. “Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!”

In a perfect comedic bit, a woman walks her wheelchair-using grandmother past the two, in clear earshot of Jon’s nightmarish soliloquy.

Fox Searchlight, who distributed the film, used this as a “big moment” in the trailer to try and sell the movie as more of a quirky dark comedy than it actually is. It’s a hilarious moment, but that beat is used to undercut the harsh reality in which Jenkins examines the world—one far closer to the truth than other films of its nature have the guts to navigate. It’s also a moment that reflects the dichotomy between the two siblings and how, after all these years, those old tensions come right back to the surface.

Wendy is an open wound, very prim and wanting to do the courteous thing, a bit naive about the pain of the world and afraid to confront her own dissatisfaction with her life. She brings a card and balloon to the family of their father’s dead girlfriend, despite having never met them. She lies to her brother about getting a Guggenheim grant because she wants to impress him, or is ashamed she hasn’t made more of herself, or feels inferior due to his subtle ways of making himself out to be superior. Jon, meanwhile, is practical to a fault. His realistic nature makes him come off cruel, and he’s just as scared of confronting his own faults as Wendy is.

I don’t know if it’ll take something like what happens to Jon and Wendy to get my sister and I in the same room again. There are times I consider reconciliation. I know that’s what every therapist I’ve seen in the last 13 years has wanted. I know it’s what my parents want: My mother tells me that all she wants for Christmas is for my sister and I to speak again. I want to be able to give her that, especially before a time comes when I might not be able to—or she might not be aware of it if I do. I often grapple with the guilt of holding onto what feels like a silly grudge, especially when I think about my friends who never had any siblings, or friends who have had siblings that they’ve lost and miss every day. People who would give anything for one more conversation.

Am I the asshole for holding onto this pain? To not concede or compromise after all these years? She’s attempted to reach out to me to begin talking again, but I’m always surprised by the attempt to just speak as if nothing ever happened. There’s never been any kind of apology, just casual conversation like we haven’t been estranged for over a decade. There are times when I consider replying, but then I hear through one of my parents something new—something that again resigns me to this feeling that my sister hasn’t changed. Some other cruel pettiness that inflicts damage. But I don’t really know anything about her now. Maybe, like Jon and Wendy, if we reunited, there would be the old tensions and resentments. But also, perhaps, a chance for reconciliation.

As The Savages reaches its conclusion, Jon sits and watches Wendy’s play, which depicts autobiographical details and the abuses inflicted upon them by their father. They head outside, where Jon is hailing a cab to take him to the airport, so he can attend a conference in Poland. You couldn’t say that the two have become close, necessarily. They were bonded by this experience, though, and perhaps it’s a chance for them to find a connection at this stage in their lives that they couldn’t have when they were younger. Maybe they’ll be closer now, or maybe they’ll go back to how they were before and not speak for another long time. But the door is open.

My door has been closed for a long time, but watching The Savages does what so many great films do: It allows me to reflect on my life and feel a communion with others. I’m not alone in having these circumstances—this rift. Jon is 42 in the film, a full decade older than I currently am. I don’t need to make any decisions right now about what I want to do, nor do I need to make judgments on myself for how I feel. There’s still time, and many different paths this can all take.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.