The Good House
Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Thomas Bezucha, and Ann Leary
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So, I decided to take in a film at the Angelika during some downtime on a recent trip to Dallas. A classic example of Chris’s observations on how theaters have transformed in recent years, the Angelika in Plano provides a wonderful ambience for viewing independent film. Its modern architecture, wide open lobby with a bar, and sunlight streaming through its large windows make it a beautiful establishment for settling in and watching a story play out on film in the form of The Good House.
Based on Ann Leary’s similarly titled novel, The Good House is headed by a cast of familiar names. Sigourney Weaver plays Hildy Good (Alien, Ghostbusters), a single mother in the small New England town of Wendover, Massachusetts where she grew up, and Kevin Kline as Frank Getchell (The Big Chill, Dave) the town’s unassuming wealthy builder and Hildy’s longtime friend. Although a successful realtor in the close-knit community where everyone knows each other and gossip reigns as truth, Hildy is quietly buckling under the demands of alimony payments to her ex-husband and the needs (or indulgences) of her two adult children. Charitable yet financially constrained, she copes with it all through humor and work, while maintaining the all too important balance of staying connected to her family, friends and community. Hildy also relies on something else to sustain her—alcohol, which is at the center of the film’s story.
It is rare that we think of wine as the beverage of someone who drinks heavily. But Hildy loves her Merlot. When we think of tropes around excessive drinking, images of “the town drunk” on hard liquor come to mind. They are also typically men who have lost their jobs, homes and families and are summarily shunned by friends and community members for “failing” to live up to the traditional expectations of masculinity, in other words, providing for themselves and their families. Women, on the other hand, are “hard drinkers” or “party girls” who serve as fodder for gossip and objects of disdain for the local prudes. A longtime resident of the town and accomplished realtor with well-adjusted children, Hildy doesn’t fit neatly in either mold (save for the gossip). She is best described as a high-functioning woman who uses alcohol to mask a painful childhood memory, one that is the worst kept secret in town.
More comedic than depressing, the brightly lit story takes place on the Eastern Seaboard. Hildy is not a brooding drunk but a self-sufficient woman with a great sense of humor, a high capacity to love and care for others, and a strong sense of self. We get a sense of her self-awareness as she bonds with Rebecca McAllister, played by Morena Baccarin (Dead Pool, The End Game). Rebecca, a wealthy woman, recently moved into the spacious house Hildy sold to her. She presents as naïve and struggles to connect with others in the tight-knit community. Bonding over wine, she and Hildy gossip and share each other’s secrets as friends do. But unlike Rebecca, who makes light of Hildy’s passing concerns on the town gossip about her drinking, Hildy is direct, as she provides sobering advice on several problems Rebecca shares about herself.
I love this story. While alcoholism is at its center, it does not present Hildy as a caricature, but a person who loves and cares for others, even while carrying a very deep emotional pain that she denies. She does, however, repeatedly encounter Frank, which rekindles her romantic spirit. Unlike Rebecca, Frank proves to be equally honest and sobering with Hildy about her drinking and its potential consequences, as Hildy is with Rebecca about her behavior. As he predicts, a set of tragic events makes it clear that it is not an option for her to continue to push pain aside until another day.
The film moves at just the right cadence for the audience to climb inside Hildy’s life and see her as a flawed human being rather than the stereotypical “drunk.” All throughout, we come to realize that no rehabilitation, intervention, or even self-discipline can stop the drinking. Rather the change has to begin with a commitment from her to deal with the bad and ugly of its underlying cause.
The Good House brings to mind the HBO series, Mare of Easttown, which is set in a close-knit community situated in eastern Pennsylvania, where residents live in the town where they grew up and everyone knows everyone else’s business. It is also a bit reminiscent of the 1983 film, The Big Chill, which includes Kevin Kline among the leading cast members. In a scene from the movie, Harold (Kline’s character) plays stud to his wife’s best friend at his wife’s request. His character appears as uncomfortable and unassuming then as it does in the actor’s portrayal of Frank in The Good House.
Like The Good House, Mare of Easttown and The Big Chill were set on the East Coast. And as with these films, the cast is representative of the racial and cultural demographics on the Eastern Seaboard. However, the directors, Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, should be commended for their efforts to add diverse voices to the production. They accomplish this largely through the soundtrack, which features the late Sam Cooke’s Bring it on Home to Me, Joan Armatrading, a Black singer-songwriter with the folk hit Down to Zero, and the upbeat blues sound of Ray Cashman’s Hardway, among other less well-known music artists.
More important than the music score, the directors should again be congratulated on a wonderful job for this well-focused story that doesn’t demonize people who struggle to control their drinking. Rather, it depicts the risks to one’s self and others of masking emotional pain.