For many, regardless of political party, 2016 has been a hard year. Issue after issue, failed candidacy after failed candidacy, shooting after shooting, events have left so many citizens feeling sad and powerless. So when a film comes along, unexpectedly, and makes you refocus your feelings for a few hours, you know that you’ve found a special work of art.
Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name is Doris offers an innovative take on the romantic-comedy genre while critiquing conventional conceptions of age and gender. Sally Field delights us as Doris Miller, an elderly receptionist in New York City. One day at work, the new, young manager named John (Max Greenfield) squeezes against her in a laughably awkward elevator scene. Doris falls for John. At first, her crush isn’t serious. She merely steals a pencil from him as a keepsake. But, Doris’ passion for John grows and she tries to make him fall in love with her. Through Doris’ exploration of her potential relationship, the film reveals a subtle message of social restraints on women through Doris’ love life, one told with a combination of humor and measured scenes of anguish.
Doris takes us through her personal tragedy, but also to a sense of euphoria. Her fantasy sequences take us away from Doris’s sense of isolation from everyone around her. We watch with Doris as her desires become visualized. In the first of these, Doris bumps into John at the coffee room, spilling coffee on his shirt. John then strips his shirt and kisses Doris as the film seamlessly moves from reality to fantasy.
The joy in Doris doesn’t primarily come from the potential pairing of the lead characters Doris and John. It comes from a witty script by Showalter and Laura Terruso, and a precise performance by lead actress Sally Field. Doris begins the film with feelings of isolation and anxiety, as evidenced by the jokes centered on her nervousness. At the beginning of the film, she eagerly and awkwardly goes to John’s office, flirting. Later, in a scene with just the right dose of innuendo, Doris timidly stutters as John crouches and helps inflate a medicine ball she is sitting on, by sticking a pump in it. Viewers get moments of bliss too. In one scene, we watch as Doris listens to John’s favorite band. She starts out with a frown of confusion, then she suddenly smiles and begins hopping, up and down as the millennial music gets louder.
Field is equally adept at conveying the brokenness and regret that led to Doris’ loveless life. That lovelessness is part of the film’s most striking message about issues of gender. Various scenes in the movie show Doris’ strained relationship with her brother. The screenplay gives just enough hints about why their relationship is strained, opting instead to allow the actors’ mannerisms and rage to color viewers’ conception. Most noticeably, Doris weeps that her brother left her to take care of their mother and caused Doris to lose love. One could see this message lapsing into heavy-handedness, but the subtlety of the conflict prevents the film from lapsing into a soapbox film or from overshadowing the deluge of earlier jokes. The subtle message also allows Doris to acknowledge her despair and regret before she confidently begins to resolve inter-personal conflicts from the film.
And watching Doris resolve those relationships after being awkward, drunk and depressed gives me a sense of joy. It’s a different type of joy than when I was laughing at her quirky outfits or rambling around John. It’s a joy, that despite whatever else is happening in society, it’s possible to have success in personal evolution. Or to retreat back to great film.