“I felt like a pedophile Suzy Homemaker”
When first contacted by writer/director Sandra Feldman about her film A Touch of Grey screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I was somewhat taken aback by her being a family physician. To me, it was an interesting career change from the medical field to filmmaker, but after seeing a few credits to her name as a stunt double and the film’s own message about crossroads and picking a direction, I fully understand the decision. She said how the film has been described as Sex and the City meets The Big Chill, and I do believe that is as appropriate as you can get. Admittedly, the beginning half is a tad too much Carrie Bradshaw-esque for me—although the home-maker professional type, not high and mighty ‘I am woman hear me roar’ since, according to one character here, that whole women’s liberation movement had to be created by a man, how else could more responsibilities be considered freedom—but once Liz arrives and the wine stock is consumed, secrets come out, the stinging truth is thrown about without filter, and we see behind the curtain of stress built up from decades of largely unheralded work.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Feldman wrote this story as a stage play; it’s use of just four main characters residing in a hotel room for the duration lends itself to that medium. Either way, she and co-director Ian Mah have crafted a film calling to mind those classic talkies of the 80s such as the aforementioned Big Chill and friendship catharses like St. Elmo’s Fire. We can tell from Barb’s, (Maria del Mar), opening attitude and conversation that her life isn’t as peachy-keen as the façade she puts up for her girlfriends. Thinking about the unencumbered days of their youth in high school, free from knowing the hard truths and reality of the world, a hotel room is booked and invites to her three closest chums are sent. A girls’ night out is set into motion as perfect Karen, (Katya Gardner), kooky Patti, (Kirsten Bishopric), and independent Liz, (Angela Asher), agree to travel to Toronto for some catching up, a little wine tasting, and some fun on the town with the knowledge of one simple rule—if you get out of line and risk ruining your life, such as Patti ‘harmlessly’ flirting with a 20-year old by sticking her foot on his genitals, you get tied to a chair back at the room until regret overpowers the alcoholic buzz of adventure.
As a result, the beginning is full of formalities and pleasantries as everyone tells of their perfect existences through obvious lies. We see Karen’s uncomfortable body language when mention is made of her husband’s Tampon commercial, Patti trying not to scream in frustration when talking about her day to day routine consisting of nothing considered meaningful in comparison to Barb, who’s own recap of life is short and sweet to the tune of great job, caring husband, and perfect children. It’s three middle-aged women with red wine in their hands attempting to prove to the others that the dreams and aspirations of so long ago have come to fruition. So they laugh and catch up, readying themselves to leave for the kind of free-wheeling fun they haven’t enjoyed in over twenty years, the wild nights of tattooing the phrase “Where’s the Beef?” in not so appropriate places. While all well written and acted, for a guy like me it’s a bit too female-specific to fully engage in the proceedings. Only when they finally leave for a city hotspot do I anticipate some salacious activity, except Feldman goes all Reservoir Dogs on us by cutting straight to their return to the hotel, one of them duct taped to a chair.
And here is where the strength of the screenwriter’s voice comes through. I can only assume much of the material spewing forth from the uninhibited minds of these women is personal, but being so specific and emotionally draining, I can’t see how it isn’t. Patti’s naively simple-minded attitude, talking about the strategy of taking her shirt off before breaking bad news to her husband, is flawless, soon becoming revealed as a mask for the sexual desires hidden inside; Karen’s perfect little existence as the wife who made sacrifices for the family is shattered as a secret is uncovered to prove she is in fact a complete hypocrite; Liz arrives to the fray on the cusp of a divorce, so happy for her independence yet so focused on getting half of an inheritance from someone who wasn’t a blood relative to her out of selfish greed; and Barb’s gradually building stress-induced dissolution of emotion actually has her forgiving her own father for leaving them when she was young, feelings she herself has started to harbor. All the pent-up anger and feeling of utter defeat comes bubbling to the surface, driving these old friends apart as each projects their own ideals and unwarranted judgment on the rest.
Each woman is a three-dimensional representation of the American wife circling the center of an abyss leading towards complete mid-life crisis. For every oddly expressed quarrel like a way too long exchange about the use of propositions and imperatives, there is a bitingly thought-provoking diatribe about controlling one’s urges, not feeling guilty for seeing younger men as sex objects when supposedly all men do the same towards youthful women, and the fact no female figure of authority ever told them the truth about marriage and motherhood. Gardner and Asher are the most effective performers, really delving into their polar opposite roles to full emotional effect, while Bishopric’s early annoyance makes way for a more authentic bimbo-lite demeanor as a mask of insecurities, all while del Mar slowly takes center stage as the seemingly sure-headed and successful one of the bunch, yet completely lost and adrift. Her portrayal of Barb is at times strained and over-the-top, (something that would lend itself well to a theatrical version), but always finds its bearing to become devastatingly real, especially during the final shot. As a result, A Touch of Grey is an emotional roller coaster that I’m sure most women can find a little of themselves in each character while men, if they stick around past the estrogen-heavy start, can appreciate the weight of gravity pushing down without release towards a decision that will shape the last few decades of their lives.
A Touch of Grey 7/10 | ★ ★ ★