Criterion Prediction #223: Passion Fish, by Alexander Miller
Title: Passion Fish
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Mary McDonnell, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Lenore Banks
Synopsis: When famous soap actress May-Alice Culhane (McDonnell) is paralyzed from the waist down, she encounters a series of struggles. Her fall from the public eye leads to a bout with alcoholism while driving away a series of personal assistants. However, May-Alice meets her match in headstrong Chantelle (Woodard), who is also contending with demons of her own after a recent crack cocaine addiction. Despite a contentious courtship, the two women strike a meaningful friendship while reconciling their contrasts with their similar lives.
Critique: Regardless of the genre, Sayles always, in so many words, “does it right,” the “it” being his treatment (or revised treatment) of conventions and subtle yet emphatic social and political allegories. Passion Fish is another case of Saylesian deception. In what looks like your average, soft drama about a mismatched duo becoming allies we’re offered a deliberately measured and perceptive study of maturation, friendship, race, feminism and addiction. In formulist reconstruction, Sayles burrows into the thematic outlier of the story, taking the main character’s profession as a soap actor and using it to tailor a melodrama without the melodramatic confections, opting for engaging refinement. In the same way Matewan and Lone Star are westerns, Eight Men Out is a sports narrative and Baby It’s You a teen film, Passion Fish is a soapy melodrama. But his westerns don’t rely on machismo, heroism and old testament pugilism, love doesn’t save the day in Baby It’s You and Eight Men Out is just as much a story of institutional corruption and organized crime as it is about baseball. Sayles uses the story of a paraplegic actress befriending a willful recovering drug addict and packs the linings with his sleight-of-hand commentary. McDonnell and Woodard’s union is built on sturdy characterizations that circumvent the avenue of “disease-sploitation” (The Notebook, Lorenzo’s Oil), playing on the formula that made McDonnell’s character famous in the first place, relying on mature storytelling and reinterpreting the southern feminine mystique for a distinctly modern narrative. Sayles knows how to makes statements without shouting or sermonizing. Passion Fish delivers a diverse narrative and a complicated story rich in texture and sharply drawn personas that explore a modicum of relevant issues conducive to our social fabric.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: At this point, it’s redundant to say that yours truly is an admirer of Sayles and can always make a case for his inclusion in The Criterion Collection. With the relatively recent addition of Sayles’ Matewan and the Criterion Channel (and the now-defunct Filmstruck) streaming movies like The Secret of Roan Inish and Eight Men Out, it feels like Sayles is officially in the mix with the fine folks at Janus Films. So if we’re lucky, we might get more of his movies with spine numbers. Maybe all of them, with the exception of Baby it’s You since it’s got a decent Olive Films release.