Film Review: My Life as Abraham Lincoln

Quirky, disarming movie about a woman looking for answers to her troubled life has much to recommend.

Shari Berman, who produced, directed, wrote and edited My Life as Abraham Lincoln, shows considerable talent for taking a simple concept and investing it with a wealth of knowledge and personal feeling. There have been so many stories about independent women trying to “find their way” in a hostile world, but Berman makes the story fresh and original all over again.

Native New Yorker Cindy (Caroline Luft), appears to have killed (accidentally?) her fiancé (Trevor Nelson) on their wedding day. Cindy’s psychoanalyst (Gerry Birnbach) recommends she move on with her life, but she remains stuck in the past. She tries to break free from her obsessive-compulsive ways by going on dates, including one of the world’s worst ever, and writing a murder-mystery novel based on her recent experiences. But when events continue to spiral out of control, Cindy’s reality and fantasy lives collide into each other.

Berman seems to have been influenced by the modern era of “women’s films” where the heroines are either unreliable narrators or in some way “losing it”—remember Variety (1983), I’ve Hear the Mermaids Singing (1987) or Walking and Talking (1996)? Of course, the grandmother of them all is Gail Parent’s 1972 novel, Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York, which became an underrated 1975 movie and whose intractable protagonist also happened to be Jewish. These films differ from more traditional female-centered tales of independence (1945’s I Know Where I’m Going, 1979’s My Brilliant Career) where the women are pillars of spunk and strength.

My Life as Abraham Lincoln is largely likeable thanks to Berman’s clever historical and pop-culture references (e.g., a Kurt Vonnegut character becomes integral, and Abe Lincoln’s final moments are played out by child actors) as well as her ability to maintain an impressionistic, subjective view of a psychological meltdown. Berman’s parodies of classic films (silents, film noir, Ingmar Bergman—with Swedish subtitles!) provide amusing set-pieces (cinematographer Chris Benker deserves extra credit for these). If nothing else, Berman “answers” Woody Allen’s male-centered angst-in-the-big-city stories with a feminist twist.

Caroline Luft’s lead performance makes the film especially—and surprisingly—engaging; her lack of overt expressions or reactions allows the viewer to read into her the most subtle of facial or body movements. The only drawback of Luft’s superior work is that is contrasts markedly with the sometimes amateurish acting of the supporting cast, bringing the film down to a “Sex and the City” level at times.

My Life as Abraham Lincoln also suffers from an off-putting title (however well-meant it is symbolically, with Lincoln as an icon of emancipation). On the production side, Berman makes the most of a very low budget but fails to mask some annoying sound recording echoes. Otherwise, she should be quite proud of her feature film debut.