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20110419-pillars-of-the-community-by-jeffrey-overstreetYou probably know these people. You may even be these people.

The Flahertys and the Hepples. Mike and Jackie, and Tom and Gerri.

Two couples, happily married. They own their homes. They’ve got good reputations in the community. They love their kids. And if misfortune knocks, they open the door.

The Flahertys live in New Jersey, and they’re the focus of Win Win, a movie from writer/director Tom McCarthy.

The Hepples live in a London suburb, and they’re the center of Another Year, the new film from writer/director Mike Leigh.

Both films are dramas that make you laugh and comedies that shake you up. But both are remarkable for spotlighting what we so rarely see at the movies: good marriages.

What’s more—they give thoughtful attention to the hard work of neighborly love.

“You’re a pillar of the community,” says a buddy of Mike Flaherty. And he’s right. Mike’s an attorney who defends the elderly. It hasn’t made him rich, but it’s earned him the neighborhood’s respect. His wife Jackie’s a good judge of character, and when she sees young people suffer, she’ll fight to protect them.

So when a troubled high school kid named Kyle enters the Flahertys’ world—his father’s long gone and his mother’s in rehab—Mike and Jackie (Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan) are quick to reach out. They’re cautious at first, but when compassion overpowers self-interest, they take on parental roles.

In Another Year, Tom and Gerri Hepple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) make their marvelous home a harbor where lost and damaged friends seek refuge and repair.

The Hepples are a joy to watch as they preparing meals in their kitchen with vegetables from their own garden. But they’re not carefree. They’re getting old and they know it. Their bachelor son still hasn’t found Miss Right. While Tom enjoys his work as an engineering geologist—a useful metaphor in a movie about foundations—Gerri’s work as a therapist exposes her to constant sorrow. And when Tom’s older brother loses his wife, we learn more about a burdensome family history that the Hepples quietly carry.

I felt a kinship with both the Flahertys and the Hepples, for obvious reasons.

Both of these couples seem blessed to have found each other, enjoying each other’s company after decades of marriage. Anne and me? For all of our troubles and misunderstandings, we’re still crazy about each other at the end of the day. And we have married friends who enjoy a perpetual courtship. If more filmmakers got excited about folks like the Flahertys and the Hepples, it might make healthy marriages seem more possible.

Think about it. How often do we see a great marriage on the big screen? Most movie marriages are occasions for misery, lies, and disintegration. Why any moviegoers even think about getting married boggles my mind. The films of Woody Allen alone could be enough to make a marriage counselor throw himself off a bridge.

I feel other bonds with these couples. Anne and I manage a precarious budget, but we invest heavily in friendships. We meet friends for coffee, take them to movies, and invite them on road trips. We’re grateful to rent a home we can open for parties. Sometimes we host Thanksgiving dinner for friends who don’t have families nearby, or might not have families at all. And we can convert an office into a guest room in a heartbeat if somebody needs a place to crash.

The Flahertys and the Hepples are pictures of how we can serve as “pillars of the community.” But both movies offer sobering reminders that such kindness is not always sufficient. And sometimes, what looks like grace is corrupt.

In Another Year, the Hepples take care of two old friends who keep coming back in worsening states of disrepair.

Geri’s coworker Mary is an alcoholic whose lonely desperation makes her company almost intolerable. When Mary gets jealous of others’ opportunities, she’s mean. Tom’s old schoolmate Ken is so sick with self-loathing that he’d rather drink himself to death than acknowledge an outstretched hand.

This is a little too familiar. As my community gets older, I’ve seen loved ones stumble under the weight of disappointment, sickness, loss, loneliness, and failing faith. I squirmed while I watched Tom go on giving futile counsel to Ken. Few things feel worse than reaching out to someone who’s sinking in quicksand and seeing that they’re too embarrassed to take your hand.

So I felt awful as I watched Another Year. For all of the Hepples’ benevolence, they clearly aren’t equipped to heal their friends’ internal injuries. And sadly, nobody in this London suburb believes in help more powerful than human kindness.

Win Win made me squirm too.

Sure, the Flahertys’ generosity is inspiring. Why, they might even have reached Kyle in time to save him from despair and reckless mistakes.

But Mike’s interest in Kyle is not entirely charitable. When he learns that the kid is a wrestling champion, he knows this can boost that team of pathetic high school wrestlers who call him “Coach.” It’s a pattern with Mike. After all, he found Kyle while serving as an attorney to the boy’s grandfather, Leo Poplar. Representing Leo in court, Mike saw an opportunity to make quick cash under the guise of charity.

Before the film is over, Mike’s dishonest “charity” will be exposed, and the integrity of this community “pillar” will be compromised.

So even though Win Win is a far more popular and accessible movie than Another Year, it’s more unsettling for me.

Like anybody who hopes for success, I’m grateful for friends who have connections and influence. How many relationships have I cultivated for something more than love and care? How often is my “generosity” inspired by self-serving possibilities?

Both Win Win and Another Year are going to aggravate me for the rest of this year.

And that’s just the kind of healthy aggravation that the best art can give us.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.

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