PASSION FISH (1992) / Drama

Running Length: 134 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and brief sexuality.

Cast: Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, Lenore Banks, Nora Dunn, Angela Bassett
Director: John Sayles
Producers: Sarah Green, Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles

Passion Fish centers on May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), a star of daytime television who finds herself paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a taxi cab accident. Frustrated and despondent, she relocates to her family’s old home in Louisiana, where she takes out her frustration on every caretaker that her agency sends. She is coarse and rude and develops a rather sizable drinking problem, but this begins to change with the arrival of a black nurse, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), the last caregiver that the agency is willing to send. Chantelle has problems of her own as well and eventually, she and May-Alice begin to develop a slow-but-steady friendship.

Now normally, this would work as the setup for a Lifetime channel movie; a tale of two women gaining the courage to rise up against the problems in their lives. And at first, that’s what Passion Fish seems like it’s going to be about. (A good reason for why the film did so poorly at the box office.) But that’s only the setup. What Passion Fish becomes so much more.

Like Lone Star and Silver City, Passion Fish deepens as it progresses. Sayles’ screenplay has all of the complexity and intricacy of a fine novel. He gradually adds depth to his characters, bringing their pasts into the picture. There is as much detail to their lives as that of any living and breathing human, and Sayles expresses this by giving each one of them a well-developed back story. It’s almost unexpected how involved you have become with these characters by the time that the story has ended.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, the film’s two leads, deliver powerful performances. (McDonnell was honored with an Academy Award nomination, while Woodard was robbed.) McDonnell starts out as a nasty and unlikable character. In some of the film’s softest and most delicate moments, she exhibits unprecedented strength. Her character is angry with the way that the world now views her because of her immobility and McDonnell channels this like no other. Woodard is equally as good and plays quite well off of her, even shining in scenes where she is the only one present. As well, David Strathairn is good as McDonnell’s friend from long ago and former love interest, although he has little screen time.

John Sayles has dominated independent cinema since the mid-1980s and Passion Fish is no exception. It marks his ninth outing as writer and director and fifth as editor, and his work continues to be original in all three of these aspects.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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