HERSELF – Review by Diane Carson

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Herself zooms in a hard-working woman overcoming domestic abuse

Director Phyllida Lloyd dramatizes a complex, difficult issue in Herself, namely, domestic abuse and the struggle to escape its emotional and physical toll. Nurturing her girls Emma and Molly, while fending off husband Gary’s manipulative intimidation, Sandra must honor his court-required weekend visitations, even though Molly sobs and begs to opt out of any time with her father.

The film opens with a harrowing scene as husband Gary beats Sandra, breaking her arm with a solid stomp on it. She will carry that injury literally and symbolically for the remainder of the film. As Gary’s attack begins, Sandra desperately speaks her code word to Emma who knows to run for help, instantly communicating that this has happened so many times that an escape plan exists. After this disturbing event, Sandra flees but finds refuge only in a hotel’s one room, and there she must enter from the back, climbing stairs instead of having access to the front lobby elevator. These details reveal the enormity of Sandra’s and her daughters’ predicament.

Meantime, Sandra labors at two jobs, one that brings her hope. She cleans for the spunky Harriet, for whom Sandra’s mother worked and who offers her large backyard as a location for Sandra’s modest new home. The largely nonprofessional crew building it metaphorically parallels the construction of a new life for Sandra, her family, and, actually, everyone contributing because of their renewal through, for no money, donating their time and energy. They are compensated one-hundred fold as those helping others through a generosity of spirit know quite well.

The entire cast’s performances add immense appeal without sentimental indulgence. As Sandra, Clare Dunne, who co-wrote the script, is exceptional, registering the spectrum of emotions. Sandra battles herself and others to earn her family’s chance at a better life. This is more encouraging than superhero victories. Lloyd already has admirable directing credits, including Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady I’m hoping she decides the smaller, finely crafted character studies are now her path forward. Herself streams on Amazon Prime.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.