United States of Tara (2009-2011)/Melancholia (2011)
Reflections on mental illness and family -
United States of Tara is about a family coping with the mother’s (Toni Collette) dissociate identity disorder and all the chaos that brings. Before I even begin to talk about the show I have to applaud Toni Collette. She made bold, bold choices as she played the eight different characters throughout the series and her ability to shift her body language was amazing. Over three seasons we learn that the traumatic event that triggered Tara’s disorder is not the experience she thought it was, but rather a childhood abuse she has buried deep inside her. The show, written by Diablo Cody of Juno/Jennifer’s Body/Young Adult, definitely had a Cody feel to it. The characters had quips at the ready, but were much more realistic than in Juno. Perhaps the backlash of “oh my blog” and “homeskillet” did some good for her writing. There were other moments that remind you who the author is, such as the writing of the gay characters and Cody’s willingness to put people in situations just to watch them squirm. Some of the other highlights of the show were Patton Oswalt as best friend/employee of Tara’s husband and lover of Tara’s sister and Keir Gilchrist as Tara’s teenage son. Patton Oswalt is one of those actors that become the characters in such a way that even the most one-dimensional writing comes across as a fully fleshed out personality. Even on Dollhouse.
The problems of the show sometimes took away from everything it wanted to be. The Brie Larson problem was the main issue. Larson was perfectly fine as Tara’s daughter in season one, but her character became more and more outlandish in the second season and wasn’t necessary at all in season three. Season two found her as an internet whore who dresses up as a Valkyrie and sits on a cake. (see: Cody’s tendency to be ‘outrageous’) Her character became less and less tied to the rest of the family, only serving to introduce guest star Viola Davis’s artist character. Season three was worse, as it seemed like Larson should have been a recurring character, but the show wanted her to be tied to every episode. Her storyline had nothing to do with the rest of the show – she was working as a flight attendant and only interacted with the rest of the main cast in superficial ways. There’s also the problem with Tara. Toni Collette was amazing, but normal Tara was sometimes so quirky/’fun’ that side characters would even ask if she was really an alternate personality. A little of the wild-teen personality creeped into her day-to-day personality and how she talked to people. Finally, in the series finally Tara is rid of all the extra personalities, as they are killed off one-by-one by Tara’s crazy side. (it’s complicated) But then, the last scene has Tara see her main three alters sitting on the truck. The whole thing made the drama of the alters being killed off meaningless.
Melancholia is about the end of the world. Nibiru, the planet NASA doesn’t want you to know about is hiding behind the sun and some conspiracy theorists say it will destroy the earth in 2012, has been renamed Melancholia in Lars Von Trier’s (Dancer in the Dark/Dogville/Antichrist) drama. But that’s not really what the movie is about at all. Instead, Kirsten Dunst stars (and I mean STARS, as this is the best I’ve ever seen her and makes all of the criticism she received for her performances in the Spiderman (Spider-Man…) movies completely irrelevant) as Justine. It’s her wedding night, and we’re invited! Also, she’s marrying Alexander Skarsgård. But Justine isn’t happy, instead she’s pretty melancholy. THAT’S THE NAME OF THE MOVIE ALMOST. What should be a pretty dull movie about a woman who just won’t cheer up, is instead the most beautiful and powerful movie I’ve seen in a while. Von Trier, who wrote and directed, creates the most amazing sets and the cinematography is so close to being extraordinary. Instead, the beautiful shots are dampened handheld camera work that makes some of the shots shaky. Other than that, Melancholia is a piece of storytelling about depression.
That’s one of the best parts about both United States of Tara and Melancholia: how a mental illness can affect a person, and how it impacts those around them. As someone with a looonnng struggle with depression, Dunst and von Trier hit so many of the right notes that I was punched with feeling. Dunst isn’t just unhappy, she’s sad she’s unhappy, she’s fake smiling and trying to go through motions. SHE TURNS DOWN SEX WITH ASKARS!! Watching her sister struggle to undress her, only to have Dunst be unable to lift her leg and get in the bathtub was such a powerful moment. I remember many times lying in bed screaming in my head to move, get up, do anything, and stay still – feeling like my arm weighed tons that I’d never be able to lift. The amount of sleep Dunst gets is crazy, and yet I know exactly what it’s like. Watching the various characters get angry/frustrated/broken down because of a disease with no cure, I’m forced to face how my issues impact my own family. I recognize the same emotions – anger at me, at themselves and each other, desperation to help with no idea how. Tara’s family goes through the same cycle. Not knowing how to help his wife/their mother, but desperate to stick it out, the rest of the family is put through so much Hell that it becomes almost masochistic. Mental illnesses sometimes seem contagious. The stress involved in caring for someone, the inability to know when or if they will get better, the damage your loved ones do as they lash out in a half-hearted attempt to push everyone else away, it’s no surprise that other members of the family can, and often do, become depressed themselves. Melancholia, the planet, becomes the perfect metaphor. Everyone suffers and no one knows how to fix it.