Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Academy Awards Part 3 or Here Be Spoilers

Toni Collette’s performance as a harried mom in Little Miss Sunshine was overlooked this year by the Academy Award nominations, but in 2000, she got the nod for playing a very different kind of mother in The Sixth Sense. I love this performance. It’s heartbreaking.

We all know the movie’s big revelation. And we all know watching the film more than once opens up all sorts of revealed subtext, clues, and enhanced meaning. But for me, the most powerful second vision I had of the film was not being spooked by all the ghosts that crowd into the poor boy’s life; it was realizing how alone his mother was.

Lynn is a single mother, still mourning the loss of her own mother. Dressed in cozy sweaters, with perfect nails painted as precisely as her Philadelphia diction, Lynn appears to be holding it together, making a little family out of the two of them. In one amazing scene without dialogue, she pushes her son to their car in a shopping cart. She starts to accelerate the cart, to his delight. The sound of the rattling cart is like a roller coaster. He lifts his hands in joy. It’s a bright moment she brings into their dark lives.

Bruce Willis’s character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, first introduces himself to Cole, the apparently disturbed boy, in the living room of the apartment he shares with his mother Lynn. You see the mother sitting silently with Crowe, waiting for the boy to come home and you think, “Good. She’s got some help. He’s a therapist for the boy.”

Harrowing scenes follow when the mother is frightened and confused for her haunted child: he is attacked at a birthday party; he blames his dead grandmother for missing jewelry. For me, the anxiety these scenes elicit was cushioned by the thought that the kid is in therapy, he has a professional working with him and his mom.


Crowe sees his bloody wound, realizes he is dead too. The audience reels and gasps. All is not as it seems. Lynn had no contact with a child psychologist. She was trying to figure out her strange and dangerous boy all by herself. Walking the tightrope all parents walk between trust and faith, between hope that their problems are fleeting and despair that we may need to learn to live with a pain that never goes away.

The scene where the boy gives his mother a message of pride from her dead mother could have been the height of pathos and icky sentimentality. The restrained acting from Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette make it the quiet centerpiece of a film that is ultimately about peace between parents and children, living and dead.

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