Monday, July 1, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Eve's Bayou


If you've watched enough movies about Louisiana's bayou region, you know that the plot will involve some shady dealings or at the very least some tragedy. Even the animated film "The Princess and the Frog" had some sinister elements to it. "Eve's Bayou" is no different and the execution seems acutely aware that you already have a good idea of what's going to happen. How successfully this pays off in the end is subjective. For me, it was ultimately effective.
The film's title has double meaning, referring to the name of the main protagonist, as well as the actual name of the place where the story is set. Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) is the narrator, recounting the story of her family. It begins with a party, which serves to introduce us to all the characters. The most striking of these introductions is that of the mother Roz Baptiste. Played by Lynn Whitfield, she's a beautiful woman who projects fierce confidence. Her piercing eyes and sharp bone structure almost resemble that of a villain or sultry witch from a Disney movie. That may sound like an exaggeration, but let's not forget that this is the bayou, so of course there's voodoo and mystical abilities at play. In fact, her sister-in-law Mozelle has psychic powers. The other main family members include Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) and her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson). As everyone is enjoying the festivities, it's Louis who gets the plot going with a scandalous act of adultery, accidentally witnessed by Eve.
Although his character is important, he often seems like a mere plot device. He's such a simpleton, that it's sometimes hard to believe that he's a doctor. To be honest, all the male characters seem like afterthoughts. It's not a major problem, as you soon realize that the film is about women and the secrets and lies that they keep. What fascinating women they are too.
As I mentioned earlier, Whitfield's aura as Roz is that of strength and independence. As a result, it's hard to imagine her being the weak victim that she is. Perhaps that's the point that Lemmons is trying to make, as her fake public persona is part of her own web of lies. To me, Whitfield plays it almost too well though.
The film has a beautiful sadness to it and that's heavily influenced by Debbie Morgan's excellent performance as Mozelle. She's been through so much pain and tragedy and she infuses it into her environment whenever she's on screen.
Good's characterization of Cisely brings with it some turmoil as well. Her character is coming into womanhood, but it's under circumstances that are far from ideal.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the young Jurnee Smollett. She's obviously not as experienced as Whitfield, but she's impressive in the lead role. It's much more than "child acting". She gives a fully-realized and purposeful performance. Her character is the voice of reason, trying to make sense of her world amidst a family of women content to sit back and deceive themselves. She's like a surrogate for the audience, asking all the right questions and revealing harsh truths. She's just as frustrated as the viewer, hoping the other women will jolt themselves out of their entropy and improve their situation. Of course, this desire falls on deaf ears which is understandable considering the status and culture of Southern women in the early 1960s.
As I said earlier, the film thrives on its predictability (every major event is hinted at about 20 minutes prior). It's this awareness that keeps you interested however. You keep watching as you want to see how it all plays out. It felt a bit too stage-bound at times (Mozelle has one too many monologues), but it's altogether an engaging watch. As you get comfortable though, the film then plays its trump card with a stunning ending. It's devastatingly effective and hits home the message about the effect of the lies we tell to protect ourselves.
Our lies will be our undoing, but once the cycle starts, is the truth attainable any more? Futhermore, should we even try to correct our past mistakes? I thought I knew the answer to that question, but by the end of this film I had my doubts. The fact that "Eve's Bayou" ends up being so thought-provoking coming from such a rote dramatic formula speaks a lot to the quality of Kasi Lemmons' writing and directing. Go rent this film and see for yourself.

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