Abuse is no laughing matter, which is probably why it’s such a popular subject for movies especially in today’s day and age with the rise in relevance of the #MeToo movement. All sorts of movies lately have attempted to tackle the complexities of abuse from the emotional elements like in “MidSommar” to hard hitting award-winning dramas like “Room”. In fact, one of the producers of “Room” actually helped promote Amazon’s new film “Herself”, a powerful examination of a the struggles of a mother named Sandra (Clare Dunne) as she attempts to literally build a new home for herself and her daughters after escaping an abusive relationship. It’s not watered down, it’s not lighthearted, but it is honest and it is inspiring even though it also feels a bit predictable byt the final act.
“Herself” wastes no time showing us the violence that Sandra has had to endure as right off the bat we’re presented with one of the harshest moments of abuse from her significant other Gary, played by Ian Lloyd Anderson. This sets the stage for the whole movie as next we see Sandra having split from Gary who has found a more stable situation with his parents while Sandra attempts to survive off the system until she finds a more secure situation herself. Her desire to not only provide for her two daughters but also prove her own self worth inspires her to build a home with friends and acquaintances coming together to help see her mission through. As you might have guessed it’s a literal interpretation of her rebuilding herself. Sandra’s mission is an inspiring one and Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote the movie, does one hell of a job portraying a woman going through several crises at one: depression, PTSD, insecurity…and yet she tries to remain brave for her young girls knowing that every move she makes will have a direct impact on their lives. Sandra as a character is the embodiment of the effects abuse can have on a woman, but also an inspiring figure that begs women in her situation to push through those insecurities and fears and fight for the life they deserve.
Part of why this movie works so well is that it’s led by director, Phyllida Lloyd who also led “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady”. A woman’s touch was essential to capturing the emotional depth and trauma of Sandra’s experience in this movie without taking things too far. “Herself” presents Sandra’s life after abuse in a raw, unrelenting way that doesn’t overshadow the hardships and mental terror she endures but also doesn’t devolve the experience into a depressing mess. There’s a glint of hope around every corner despite all the roadblocks and it’s genuinely heartwarming to see a community gather around Sandra to help her reach her goals. The presentation of the relationship between Sandra and Gary post-breakup is also tastefully done as we can see in Gary’s eyes and actions that he’s still the same abusive man but we also see small, tender moments from him as he tries to win Sandra back making it believable she could have fallen for him before he lost control. There’s also a neat courtroom scene where the two parents come face to face with the fate of their daughters on the line giving Sandra a platform to say what I think many women would like to say about the system when it comes to abuse. This moment could have easily been overplayed but again it’s handled with taste and class, getting the message across without overdoing it.
What spoiled this movie a little for me though was the third act which went exactly the way I thought it would. I won’t spoil it here but if you watch the film by the time you get to the end you pretty much know where the final few minutes are going to take you, as terrifying as this might be considering everything we see Sandra go through to that point. Still, it provides a satisfying emotional gut punch that punctuates the trauma that Sandra has to deal with. Her hopelessness in that final half hour and the way she leans on friends and her daughters to recover from every misstep, these are important for any viewer dealing with trauma or insecurity to see. Sandra made a bad choice; one anyone could make by being fooled by the mask people tend to wear until you get to know them. She suffers from real traumas as a result and we truly feel for her as she’s trying to navigate a broken system to get her life back and provide for her daughters. While the ending might take the story in that hopeless direction so much of the movie tries to avoid, it all still ends on a message of hope and perseverance through it all that I think will resonate with the people who need to see this movie the most.
“Herself” is an inspiring and well-made drama that tackles some very difficult realities that need to be brought to the forefront of the conversation about abuse. Clare Dunne provides a true breakout performance and with the help of director Phyllida Lloyd shines a light on one woman’s trauma and search for hope and redemption in a post-breakup world examining a lot of the struggles she faces as a woman that are all too real roadblocks women face in the real world post-abuse. This isn’t going to be an easy movie to watch for anyone suffering similar trauma. I get the feeling and lot of what Sandra goes through will probably bring bad memories to those people, but it’s those very people this movie was made for as a tribute to their struggle and a reminder for them to keep pushing through it all. It’s also a fine eye-opener for people like myself who have thankfully never had to nor known anyone who has had to live with such abuse. It has room for improvement, but “Herself” is a finely crafted and important movie that tackles an all-too-relevant topic with tact, sincerity and an honest sense of genuine understanding.