Expecting Mary

[Christianity Today Movies; Sept 9, 2010]

Stars: 2

Cast: Elliott Gould (Horace Weitzel), Linda Gray (Darnella), Lainie Kazan (Lillian Littlefeather), Cloris Leachman (Annie), Della Reese (Doris Dorkus), Olesya Rulin (Mary)

Fans of Bella and Juno will be glad to welcome Expecting Mary, another film showing how an unexpected pregnancy can lead to a happy ending. This time around the mom-to-be is Mary, a 16-year-old runaway; she is headed for California and her dad who, she thinks, will be more understanding and “cool” than her uptight mom.

“I’m only having it because they [her mom and stepdad] don’t want me to,” she tells another character. Is that because of financial pressures, and too many mouths to feed? No, Mary replies, her parents are rich, and “could afford to feed twenty more mouths.” Mary has spent her life in fancy boarding schools while her parents traveled the world. The pregnancy is unacceptable to them because it is an embarrassment, considering their social circle. “They said, ‘Come home, have an abortion, we’ll say it was appendicitis.’” Instead, she ran away.

A kindly truck driver, Horace, gives her a lift, and wants to know if he can ask a “personal question.” With a sigh, she rattles off the basics—16, unwed, eight months pregnant. Horace says no, what he was going to ask was, “Do you like polka music?” He pops in an 8-track tape to introduce her to what he calls “the happiest music on earth.” Mary has met the first in a long line of charmingly kooky folks, who are going to impact her life in various ways all the way through the child’s birth.

In New Mexico, Horace suggests that they stop to eat at the casino where his where girlfriend is a showgirl. It turns out to be a small and shopworn place, run by “the last of the Kaiyute Indians,” Lillian Littlefeather, a plump old dame who sprinkles her conversation with Yiddish. Horace’s girl is Darnella, who, with fellow troupers Shar D’onnay and Crystal Lite, make up the “Kaiyute Kai-yuties”. Horace tells Mary that Darnella was once the girlfriend of Frank Sinatra, and that it was Frank who gave her that nifty green Thunderbird. The Kai-yuties stroll across the stage wearing (fairly modest) red outfits, and bulky Christmas-tree headdresses dotted with blinking lights.

It will come as no surprise that Mary is going to hit some detours, and meet some interesting characters, before getting to her dad’s door. She lingers in the little town, sleeping on the sofa at Darnella’s place and getting to know the other residents of the trailer park. There’s a batty old gal, Annie, who is all about pigs—pig clothing, pig shoes, a pink piggy paint job for her trailer—and who raises pigs in the small enclosure around her trailer. When local kids yell and try to frighten the critters, she fires rock salt at them from a shotgun. There’s also the very grumpy owner of the trailer park, Doris, who takes every opportunity to shoot down Darnella’s optimism. Darnella has an agent, a loopy guy portrayed by Fred Willard, and he’s as watchable and funny here as he is in similar roles in Christopher Guest movies. Eventually we do get to meet Mary’s dad (played by Gene Simmons of KISS), and her ice-queen mom (Cybill Shepherd, being a very good sport as the butt of some hearty slapstick in a later scene). Plenty of colorful chaos ensues before it all comes together for a thoughtful and moving conclusion.

If this sounds like the kind of movie you like, you won’t be disappointed. Personally, I went into it with some skepticism. The setup sounded too artificial to me—all the pointedly quirky characters and deliberately oddball touches. It sounded too calculated. As I watched, I felt like it just wasn’t coming together. The parade of kooky details didn’t seem like authentic, organic elements of the characters’ personalities. Nor did the characters link convincingly to each other. The action felt centerless. This is a large ensemble cast, with eight main roles besides that of Mary; the venerable actors filling those roles each get their turn in the spotlight, and each gives a fine performance. But they don’t seem to really be part of each other’s lives.

Perhaps the weakness of the center has something to do with the character of Darnella, who is the link for everyone else. She’s presented as a figure of sweet simplicity, but something more dynamic could have forged a stronger link—a character less wistful and good, more boisterous and fallible, perhaps. As it is, some of Darnella’s comments, intended to signal childlike simplicity, come across as just inane. When Mary notes that her trailer is already decorated for Christmas (it’s Thanksgiving), Darnella says she never takes the lights down because “The Christmas spirit is just so nice. It’s a shame to save it for Christmas.” I try to imagine how Bette Midler might have said such a line.

The generation-gap casting is curious, too: apart from young Olesya Rulin (who is great as Mary), the eight other main characters are portrayed by actors ranging in age from 60 to 84. When I first looked over the notes for the movie, I wondered if it was a vehicle designed to give Baby Boomers an opportunity to play colorful and (hopefully) memorable characters. But, actually, all but two of this crowd are too old to qualify as Boomers. Cloris Leachman is 84; Della Reese is 79; Linda Gray, who portrays Darnella, is 70. She looks great for her age, but there is something about a 70-year-old showgirl that is unsettling, even in theory.

Surely some of the names attached to this movie would flinch at hearing it described as “pro-life,” but a film that depicts, in literally glowing fashion, the transcendent goodness of giving life, can’t be described another way. The bottom line is, audiences like it when pregnant characters give birth. A movie about a character in Mary’s shoes, who had an abortion instead, would be a downer. We seem to be pre-set to cheer for babies to make it out of the womb alive. As movies like Juno, Bella, and now Expecting Mary show, it’s becoming increasingly possible to present such pro-birth stories on screen. May there be many more.

Talk About It

1. Darnella says, “I don’t believe in death. I think we just take off our spacesuits.” What do you think she means by that? Do you agree?

2. Mary’s birth takes place in an unusual setting, one which, at one time, might have been thought disrespectful. Why does it seem more acceptable today? Are there other examples in this movie of things we now are free to laugh about, but were once considered off-limits?

3. Darnella tells Mary that we must love someone “with an open hand.” This recalls a quote from Khalil Gibran, “If you love somebody, let them go.” Does this seem true, to you? Are there situations in which it is right to take the opposite, and fight to preserve a relationship? Do we find references to either kind of love in the scriptures?

The Family Corner. No violence, sex, or bad language. The scene in the casino is fairly tame, and the only evident gambling is a slot machine.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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