Cloudburst (2011/14): Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald. Starring: Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker, and Ryan Doucette. Running Time: 93 minutes. Based on the play of the same name by Thom Fitzgerald.
It has been fascinating to watch how, over not much more than a decade really, a titanic shift has occurred within the popular consciousness concerning homosexuality and the idea that homosexuals should enjoy the same rights and privileges and be as free of abuse as heterosexuals. To some degree, it has been a shift pushed by my own generation, more eager to embrace social deviations from long-standing cultural norms, and I sincerely hope it’s a shift that will also extend to racism, sexism, and bigotry in general. We shall see. In the meantime, Cloudburst is here to offer its own take on the ability of love to transcend the limitations imposed by other people, the general social order, and by our own physical bodies themselves.
Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker star as Stella and Dotty, an elderly lesbian couple content to live out their years in the quiet countryside of Maine, near the Canadian border. Not that life is easy- Dotty is blind and overweight, and even Dukakis’ sharp-tongued Stella is slowing down with the years. One thing I appreciated most about this film was how it doesn’t skirt around the struggle against physical decline that we all face sooner or later. In fact, it’s one of the central points on which the story turns. Because of Dotty’s blindness, her granddaughter, somehow totally oblivious to the nature of her grandmother’s relationship to Stella, shows up with her husband to get her to sign papers allowing them to put her in a retirement home. Dukakis is infuriated by this, and responds by first pelting the poor girl with hot water and flour, then by attempting to choke-hold the husband, and finally (after being held up practically at gunpoint) by breaking Dotty out of said home, after which they decide to head out north to Canada and get legally married, to make sure that they can never be forcefully separated again.
So for the most part, it’s essentially your standard roadtrip/romantic-comedy rouine, this time with foul-mouthing lesbians who deliberately seek out ways to incorporate into the script every euphemism for “vagina” known to man (and several known to monkeys!). A young hitchhiking dancer named Prentice joins them before too long. He is ostensibly along for the show because he believes he has a side story parallel to the main plot to attend to. In a subsequent scene, he is informed that, as a matter of fact, he does not.
I will not spoil the resolution that this builds to, but that doesn’t matter much either way, because this is not the sort of film to try and throw narrative curveballs at anyone. Its attention is lavished on the relationship between Stella and Dotty, refined over 31 years of living in defiance of what so many people told them was wrong. Being a decades-long relationship between old people no longer beautiful by conventional standards, quietly confident in their dealings with each other, this of course makes it one of the most compelling and just plain interesting, romances of the year, and it’s ultimately what makes Cloudburst shine. Dukakis is hilarious with her sharp insults for anyone and anything that happens to, well, exist, and Fricker anchors herself powerfully well in the role of the proverbial contented straight-man.
Because I couldn’t help but feel for our two leads (and even Prentice eventually grew on me), I was never bothered by the rougher edges of the film. Prentice has his moments, but many of the extra actors sounded like they needed a few more read-throughs of the script prior to filming. The granddaughter and her husband exist merely as plot devices taking some time off from the Adult Swim special they seem to usually occupy when off-screen, and so they never really register. And I actually would have liked a little more time with the couple prior to the rescue-and-escape mission, to get a better of sense of their interactions when not on the run.
No matter though, because I am one of those moviegoers who will forgive many a flaw if I’m given something pretty to look at, and the cinematography and choices of location are gorgeous. The farm scenes used for many of the settings remind me movingly of another area near the Canadian border where my family owns a large tract of land- it is one of the most beautiful secrets I know of. And I could not help but think of it as the movie takes us through rolling lush, forested hills, tree groves thick with summer green, and idyllic and sleepy coastal coves.
It is a movie that directly addresses one of the fundamental debates over marriage rights raging across the US- in the end, does it really matter? Is having an official slip of paper from a judge worth the hassle? Does it really change things within the relationship, and if it does, can it do so for the better? Yes, Cloudburst is unafraid to say with firm confidence. Yes, it does.