Two new films remind us of the importance of empathy


Maybe we shouldn’t make so many assumptions. People are rarely as predictable or straightforward as they seem, though bad writing often makes them so. But good writing, and equally important, good performance, can help us take a step back and reevaluate what we assume about others, why they do what they do, and what they are going to do in the future.

I guess one guess is safe, at least – Essie Davis and Andrea Riseborough are both going to put in stunning performances no matter what they’re into and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them show up in the awards season campaigns, except that the movies they’re in may prove too small to garner the broad enthusiasm needed. Which is a huge shame, both because each actor is magnificent, and because their films tell stories, themselves small, but which push us to examine our biases and ask us to open ourselves to empathy .

In Bunny King’s Justice, Davis plays the title character, a New Zealand woman who, as the film opens, tries to see her children in state custody. Her teenage son seems deeply frustrated with her and her young daughter seems to have some kind of disability, but we don’t know what. Bunny seems to be trying everything she can just to spend time with her children, but she’s also not very good at following the many rules that have been put in place to “protect the children”. She lives with her sister’s family and struggles to find her own accommodation, a necessary condition for her to be able to reunite with her children. At the start of the film, she promises her daughter that they’ll be throwing a birthday party for her soon, and that becomes the driving force behind much of what she does for the rest of the film. She can’t do much, but she will, damn it.

We think we probably know who Bunny is, and for a while there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe otherwise – Bunny repeatedly makes bad decisions, bending the law (or at least socially acceptable behavior) and unnecessarily putting more obstacles in his own way. She shows up unannounced at her children’s foster home, even though it’s a violation that will no doubt be reported, she hunkers down in an expensive condo after pretending she’s interested by buying the place. She helps her niece (Thomasin McKenzie) run away from home after catching the girl’s stepfather trying to sexually assault her, but rather than remove herself from the situation completely, Bunny returns to the man’s garage to vandalize his car, and later steals that same car. . Again and again, we just want to scream, “Bunny, WHY?

But it’s not just that she is irresponsible (she is also irresponsible). She is also, it turns out, in a much more complicated situation than we thought. What we thought was probably true about how she got to this job — that her bad decision-making got her here — isn’t quite true. And learning what we’re doing from Bunny makes us care about her even more (Davis’ performance already made us care about her, even if we were desperately exasperated). We also see the kindness of the people around her who help her along the way, though she often makes mistakes that compromise their kindness. Davis’ expression of Bunny’s stubborn determination wins us over to his side, and the way first director Gaysorn Thavat distributes information as he goes leads us into the complexity of what we actually see. It’s an exercise in forcing us to see people as more than their actions, or at least reminding ourselves that we never really know what other people are going through.

While Bunny often makes bad decisions for good reasons, the same would be hard to say about Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie— his decisions are bad, yes, but the reasons are not good. They are not malicious either, but they are deeply selfish. Whether Bunny King’s Justice is here to remind us of what we can’t see in others, this movie is here to remind us of the importance of empathy even when there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it. Other than the fact that all people deserve empathy no matter who they are.

Leslie once won nearly $200,000 in the lottery in her West Texas town, but that was six years ago and she doesn’t seem to be any better off. Probably worse. She is unemployed and has no place to live. And she drinks. A lot. More than many. She seems to be on shaky ground with her son, but he lets her come stay with him so she can get back on her feet, as long as she doesn’t drink, which she does, on the first day. He sends her back to her hometown on a bus and to the house of a couple who seem to care a lot about the son, but have clearly had their patience tested by Leslie in the past. She is also leaving in one day. In fact, Leslie seems to be doing everything she can to damage any potential help she can get, and as quickly as she can damage it – a lot of it is alcohol, but it’s not as if she didn’t realize it. She is sick, yes, but she is also extremely hard to bear, for anyone, including us. She is actively destructive in her personal relationships and she continues to drink.

But hey, there are people like that. Many of us know them. And yet, they are people. Marc Maron’s Sweeney seems to realize this. He runs a motel with his partner, Royal (Thread‘s Andre Royo), and comes across Leslie, who is definitely on the prowl not steal stuff. Instead of kicking her out, Sweeney offers her a job and a room at the motel, sort of out of nowhere, and obviously against her better judgment. But it also feels like Sweeney’s lived decades of life, and he’s had the bruises to go with it, and he knows other people have them too. He’s not overly generous, or some sort of magical savior for Leslie, he’s just a kind man who treats her like a human being.

Things don’t change right away, and it’s not entirely clear why they end up doing so, although people do change, and sometimes the only reason is that it’s time. By the time there’s movement, you’d expect us to have ditched Leslie too, but Riseborough has gotten us so drawn in that we can’t stop staring at her, and we’re starting to see the subtle changes in how she carries herself, in the clarity of her eyes and in how the people around her affect how she feels. There are no seismic changes, but there are real changes, and they matter, for Leslie and for us. Maron too is simply fantastic, sweet and quietly funny. Like Leslie, he’s a person who does things that don’t seem to make sense, though his moves help heal rather than destroy. We can’t always explain who others are or what they are doing, but we can try, and at least we can listen.

Bunny King’s Justice and To Leslie are both available now on VOD.

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