There is a moment in the film "Brooklyn," when a young, scrubbed-face Irish girl named Eilis who has emerged from a dank, sick-ridden ship to the United States with advice and clear blue, wide eyes, finally receives her first letters from home. She has a job in a luxe department store, is enrolled in night classes and has settled into a boarding house with other young women and a crass-but-proper house mum. Clasping letters to her chest that have been penned carefully from her sister, the one who arranged for her to "away to America," and her widowed mother, Eilis collapses on to her iron bed in ache and tears and homesickness.
None of us have to be in Brooklyn in the early 1950's, nor an ocean away from our family and former life, nor on a bed that is not our own to feel we've been dropped into a foreign country and expected to weave a life out of lonely days and new experiences.
That heart of of the film — beating steady and nervously, then quick and courageously — is what makes a simple story feel so intimate, so complex and so personal. To be a woman alone in a new and intimidating place, to have to trust that the right people will show up around us, to dig deep, to be brave, to let go enough to sob into a worn quilt and laugh into a holiday cocktail — I think this is the story of many single mothers, of even more women who've set out with suitcases and faith. Or at least hope.
I've been there. Have you? I've buttoned up a blouse for a job that didn't quite fit but I needed. I've written detailed letters (or texts or monologues to my therapist) that vacillate between the red-lipsticked smile around all of the activities and new sights and happenings that are all completely fine, and the longing, the fear and the wish to just be home. And then, one day, as it happens with Eilis, I've realized I've made a new home and as tempting as it seems, there is no going back to the way it was or the places I've come from.
The connections between single mamas and this movie are conceptual. But the emotions are a strong enough pull for you to identify with Eilis, played sweetly by Saoirse Ronan — all milky skin and tidy wool cardigans and far less naive than she appears.
I also laughed along with boarding house mother Mrs. Kehoe, played perfectly with comedy that seems unintentional but it delivered with impeccable timing, who reminded me of all of the mothers I know who have been there/seen that/done it all, and feel a responsibility for setting straight the ones just coming up. And, of course, Eliis’ frail and passive widowed mother of two grown women, is the fearful single mother inside of many of us who longs to be taken care of and can’t seem to leave the life that always has been.
The script is sparse, the colors are vibrant, the filming is lush, the relationships feel very real. I got it. For my own private immigration to lands unknown, I felt it pull and push at me long after I cried in the movie theater.
You have your own Brooklyn, I imagine. Your suitcase carries its own mementos. You’ve fallen apart to connect to that past in words or pictures or memories kept tight and tidy in your mind. You’ve tested your tenor by stepping foot back in your motherland, by listening to recognizable opinions and trying to fit who you are now in a place you lived then. You’ve found your way back to your center, your people, your opportunities, your new true center. That’s why I imagine you will tear up and laugh and cringe just like I did in a dark theater with “Brooklyn” projected all around you. We may be in different places, but the familiar feelings will make us nod up at the screen, and in turn, toward each other.
See it. And then tell us about how you crossed continents to find your own home.
This post is made possible by support from Fox Searchlight Pictures. All opinions are my own.