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We like to have control over most things in our lives. You name it, if we could control it, we would. And when we come across things we have absolutely no control over, we fuss and fret like toddlers throwing tantrums. Why? Because we’re convinced that if we can control it, it works best for us. If we can’t, we don’t do go down without a fight. Most humans are like this. We have to learn to accept what we can’t change. Wisdom gives us this ability. However, if you’re Harriet Lauler (Shirley MacLaine), an 81-year old former owner of an advertising agency, it might take a little longer for you to learn that lesson.
While this year’s festival opener didn’t have the same kick as last year’s Eye in the Sky did, the 2017 season of Cinequest still managed to get off to a solid start with The Last Word, starring legendary Shirley MacLaine and energetic Amanda Seyfried. MacLaine’s Harriet has to be in control of absolutely everything. She doesn’t like how the gardener tends to the hedges out in the front yard so she must do it herself. She can’t bother to wait for the hairstylist to fix her hair so she takes charge of that. She can’t stand around while dinner is prepared for her either. She has to get involved.
One day while going through her stash of newspapers, she comes across various obituaries and suddenly she comes up with the most brilliant idea of all: she wants to be in control of how people remember her. How does one achieve this? By having an obituary ready for when her time comes to take her last dance. To do this, though, she needs help. Enter: Anne Sherman a young obituary writer who has secret aspirations for more beyond the newspaper she works for: she just isn’t sure how to go about that. Of course, there are more pieces than Anne having to write Harriet’s obituary as it isn’t as simple as it might appear and over the course of their tentative dynamic, the two women could learn a great deal from one another about themselves.
The Last Word is a film that doesn’t give us anything fresh in terms of theme and character. This is pretty much a passable comedy that has a steady emotional center. That said, this does not mean that there aren’t aspects that could be worth your while. Namely Shirley MacLaine. This is so obviously her space to shine and she owns every moment on screen. At 82, she’s still as sharp as a tack and full of vibrancy, not unlike the great Rita Moreno, who made an appearance at last year’s Cinequest both in the flesh and in the film, Remember Me. Ms. Moreno, who also is in her 80’s, still exudes a sensual, saucy energy. MacLaine however, is all sassy charm. Not that either one is better than the other, they are just different, but equally effective and know how to touch your heart.
MacLaine commands every scene she’s in. Sure a lot of the situations and dialogue she has are essentially tried and true formula when dealing with characters who have chips on their shoulders for much of the story until there is a change in their arc at some point. The difference here is in how MacLaine delivers say, a speech to a group of at-risk grade school aged kids about taking risks in life. Sure, the situation is overly contrived, but it is how MacLaine delivers the lines, how she inhabits the character that makes it all feel that much more real. It felt like every beat was coming from some place that was real. Take the strained relationship Harriet has with her only daughter Elizabeth (Anne Heche) for instance, then look at MacLaine who in real life also has one daughter, actress Sachi Parker who has also experienced a similarly strained relationship. While watching this movie, you absolutely cannot say that there isn’t any authenticity coming out in the role. It oozes off the screen.
Amanda Seyfried is passable here. Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t allow her any depth. She comes off as the standard, young foil to MacLaine’s weathered curmudgeon. The other scene stealer here, even when going toe to toe against MacLaine, is AnnJewel Lee Dixon, who plays the spunky, 9-year-old with a potty mouth and a penchant for dancing, Brenda. Not that she did anything that should get her any awards, but the kid clearly has some skill for sure and she will only get better. The problem with her inclusion in this film, though, is the role her character serves. She essentially is picked out by Harriet to serve a need for Harriet. She isn’t really thinking about the inner-city youth’s needs or anything like that. Harriet’s motives are self-serving and the fact that Brenda is a child of color makes the depiction of their dynamic a little problematic.
Granted there are some genuine and touching examples of how all three ladies relate to one another as humans, a fun and touching scene in a lake at night where all three of them bond in the water being one of them, but certain bits do make Brenda little more than a token black child whose social status is exploited. Still, it was nice to see three ladies in the company of one another where there was no dramatic conversation about a boyfriend or husband or their work or anything like that. They were just bonding and enjoying each other like a nice little family. It was very touching. Director Mark Pellington, who was present for a Q&A session following the film’s premiere expressed that the dynamic between the ladies was meant to express a piece that each of them had been missing in life at that point and time; they completed one another. There were moments where this felt genuine and then there were other points where it was eye-roll inducing.
Speaking of Pellington, his direction was very steady. He did a great job handling the actors, though one wonders how much handling was necessary for a pro like Shirley MacLaine. Still, Pellington’s offering is solid enough, complete with mostly strong performances, decent camera work and some really strong music. Not necessarily the score, but the music selection in the film. There are several scenes that take place in a radio station, as such music would presumably play a role somewhere. There were songs from many independent and little-known artists from various time periods. Nearly everything was great and everything fit in with the context and tone of the film.
The Last Word sets us up with an idea about who will have the final say, but figuring that out isn’t really important. What is important is the lessons the Harriet, Anne and Brenda learn through their relationship with one another and how that shapes them. What this film also gets us to think about is who we touch, the lives we may or may not realize that we affect, because in the end, they are the ones who will keep us alive with them after we finish our run. The last word will be theirs.