Rare Objects movie review: broken things, on the mend

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: It’s overstuffed and often jarring. But it’s also honest and unassuming, never insipid or sentimental, with a rough power, a generous spirit, and performances that are warm, wise, and perceptive.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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For her third feature film, actor-turned-director Katie Holmes appointed herself a challenging task: adapting a novel that is, by all accounts (I have not read it), introspective and meandering, neither of which are qualities that easily translate to the screen. The result? Holmes’s Rare Objects, based on the book by Kathleen Tessaro, is not entirely successful. But it is honest and unassuming, a story about kindness and gentleness that is never insipid or sentimental.

Benita (Julia Mayorga) is a young woman much in need of gentle kindness, which, as the film opens, she is attempting to administer to herself. She has dropped out of college after a traumatic incident left her with PTSD and profound anxiety, and returns home to live with her widowed mother (Saundra Santiago) while she recovers. She speaks to no one of what she has gone through, not even her mother, but she is haunted by it, as the film is. Not a spoiler: she was raped. Depressingly often, the sort of thing is lazy shorthand for creating a supposedly complex female character, but Holmes and her coscreenwriter, Phaedon A. Papadopoulos, treat Benita’s flashbacks to the event and her unfolding misery in response to it with nary a hint of fetishization or titillation. The crime itself is not depicted, only the immediate before and after, and while not graphic, it is briefly horrific, not least because her shock and dismay are the focus. (It helps, too, that the cinematographer, Lisa Rinzler [Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Welcome to Collinwood], is female; this matters.)

Rare Objects Alan Cumming
It’s never not a delight to spend time with Alan Cumming.

The film wanders from here, and takes too long to settle into necessary forward motion: we’re half an hour in before Benita gets a job that may help her find a new groove for herself, in a small but ritzy antiques store. And it’s only now that we also meet, in another flashback, Diana (Holmes: The Secret: Dare to Dream, Ocean’s Eight), a fellow patient in the mental-health facility Benita had checked herself into to recover after her rape. (She is checking herself out as the movie begins.) With its runtime of just over two hours, Objects is overstuffed; it could easily have done with a trim from its rambling and diffuse first act, and been all the stronger for it.

There’s a bit of a tone shift at this point, too, when Benita meets the shop owner, Peter… who is Alan Cumming (Show Dogs, Battle of the Sexes) being charming and insouciant Alan Cumming. And when Diana turns up at the shop one day; surprise! she’s a wealthy, influential socialite. There are just a few too many elements that are suddenly jarring here, from Cumming’s humor, modest though it is, to the coincidence of Diana to the unlikeliness that someone like her would even be in the same medical facility as a poor, debt-laden student such as Benita.

Rare Objects Katie Holmes
Floppy hat = manic pixie? Not here, thank goodness.

The rape seems to be a deviation from the novel, according to the Wikipedia synopsis, just one of many significant differences from the source material. This is set not in Great Depression–era Boston, with a protagonist who is the child of Irish immigrants, per the book, but in contemporary New York City, with Benita the child of Hispanic immigrants. New York is a genuine character here, which is terrific, especially Benita’s Queens neighborhood and the urban lifeblood of the subway, but although the film was shot during the coronavirus pandemic — there are lots of face masks in use — that’s mostly in the background. The pandemic itself does not feature as a larger trauma impacting everyone (as surely the Great Depression was) and which, it’s impossible to escape wondering, might have made the theme of finding a new story for your life when it all goes wrong resonate far deeper than it does.

It’s all a bit a mess, a bit all over the place. But there’s rough power to Rare Objects: in the friendship that develops between Benita and Diana, in the groundedness of both women’s troubles. (In the hands of a lesser director and a lesser actor, Diana could easily have become a clichéd manic pixie.) The performances — especially Mayorga’s, an auspicious debut — are warm, wise, and perceptive. (The terrific cast also features Derek Luke [Self/less, Alex of Venice] as Peter’s business partner and David Alexander Flinn as Diana’s brother.) Clearly a labor of love for Holmes, this is a film with a generous spirit, and that’s lot more than can be said for many movies at the moment.

more films like this:
In Her Shoes [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Hulu US | Disney+ UK]
The Light of the Moon [Prime US | Prime UK | Showtime US]

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