COVID-19 retro movie review: Hello, My Name is Doris

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

We all crave connection; that deep and abiding sense that we are part of something far bigger than our own insular self and that people actually care about us and want to be with us.

Sure, we can exist in our existential bubble but if that’s all you have, then life can begin to feel very small indeed.

Sixty-something Doris (Sally Field in pitch-perfect mode as usual) is someone who has allowed her life, through choice and unavoidable circumstance, to shrink down to the point where she lives alone in a house crowded with hoarded possessions following the all-too-recent death of her mother.

Having devoted many years to tending to her ailing mother, Doris’s world consists of ferry trips from Staten Island to Manhattan for work at an ad agency where she is a data entry operator and outings to hear motivational speakers with best friend Roz (Tyne Daly).

Doris isn’t necessarily a fan of motivational gurus like Willy Williams (played with charming superficiality by Peter Gallagher) but when she goes to one lecture in the almost initial aftermath of her mother’s death, she is ripe for the rather simplistic message that “I’m possible!” (rather than impossible).

To the rest of us, Williams’ message is full of platitudes and glib sentiment but Doris feels lost and alone in her grief, as any of us would, and is receptive to the idea that could re-invent her staid life with a few uttered mantras and the tenacity to pursue her dream.

(image courtesy official Hello, My Name is Doris Facebook page)

Which, as it turns out, is not a thing so much as a him.

Doris has fallen for new L.A. transfer, handsome John Fremont (Max Greenfield), a man so potently attractive, to her at least, that she almost immediately imagines herself caught in his embrace as he swoons before her begging for a chance to make her the object of his (imagined) considerable affection).

It’s obvious that Doris hasn’t got a chance of landing John, not because he’s an inconsiderate jerk – he’s actual quite sweet and genuinely enjoys becoming friends with Doris through her stalking-inflected tactics (he’s, of course, unaware he’s being manipulated) – but simply because they come two totally different worlds.

John is young, ambitious, hip and quickly becomes very New York in his accumulation of friends who make artisanal chocolate wrapped in haiku or who join rooftop lesbian knitting circles to find themselves, while Doris is … NOT.

In Fields’ brilliantly skilled hands, Doris doesn’t come across as a pathetic object of ridicule nor as someone who should simply retreat back into the clogged depths of her mother’s home and never emerge again.

She is aching for life to begin anew, and while her motivation for pursuing change isn’t an entirely healthy one – connection with someone? Tick! Thinking a man about 35 years her junior is her perfect match? Not so much – it comes from a pure and entirely understandable place.

Having up so much of her life in service to her ailing mother, Doris wants something new and exciting; impelled by this wholly understandable motivation, she doesn’t stop to think about what it is she wants and if the way she is going about it is entirely healthy.

It makes sense, though; she has spent decades cooped up in a suffocatingly insular world and now she’s tasted something outside of it, the chance, in her mind at least, of a relationship with John, she wants nothing more than to make it happen, health life outlook be damned.

(image courtesy official Hello, My Name is Doris Facebook page)

Writer (with Laura Teruso) and director Michael Showalter has crafted an entirely empathetic protagonist in Doris, a person who goes out too hard too fast and in all the wrong ways but for all the right reasons.

All the dressing up in garish neon clothing, the listening to songs by John’s favourite band and attendance at their concert and the befriending of the closeknit circle of fans who are many years younger than her, is driven by a simply, beautiful need to belong.

Lost in grief, regret and an unarticulated sense that life has passed her by, you can well understand why Doris throws herself into her pursuit of John with such ill-considered gusto – she wants life and she wants it now and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense.

Doris just wants to LIVE.

Hello, My Name is Doris is the supreme, heartfelt joy that it is, not because there’s some easy, obvious ending but precisely because there’s not; well, not at first, with the film eschewing the usual saccharinely unrealistic wrap-up of proceedings for something far more realistic but ultimately more rewarding for Doris.

She does change, and her life takes some immensely affirming turns, no thanks to her selfish brother Todd and his grasping, avaricious wife Cynthia (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey respectively) but they are far more grounded and far more in keeping with the way life actually than most American films.

Doris isn’t perfect but she is a real, loving and hopeful human being who simply wants a meaningful life, and a real sense of communion and connection with someone special and a renewed sense that what she’s doing has real purpose and meaning.

Does she rush out the gates to fast to get that? Yes. Is her pursuit of John, and by extension, this brave, new exciting life, ill-advised but wholly understandable? It is.

But Hello, My Name is Doris never makes fun of its endearing, awkward but delightfully real protagonist, honouring her intent while exploring how its execution doesn’t quite go to plan in ways that will make you cringe at times but in the end, want to embrace Doris as an exemplar of all of us who reached a point in life where things have gone dead and stale and we have no idea what needs to be done to fix things.

We have all gone off half-cocked in the pursuit of a solution, of a connection, of love and meaningful and so you identify with Doris through her messy, ill-judged journey to a new life, knowing that we are all capable of stuffing things up on our way to something good and wonderful and that the key, in the end, is to stick it out, lick the wounds of our aspirational misadventures and embrace where we finally land because if our heart is in the right place, and Doris’s most certainly is, we will get there eventually and it will be wonderful, worth the mistakes and far richer and quietly better than we ever imagined.

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