Film Review: The Looking Glass

Sensitive indie about a troubled young girl whose grandmother is desperately trying to establish a connection with her and impart valuable life lessons before she dies.
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The Looking Glass is a lyrical, haunting film about a little-known aging actress, Karen (Dorothy Tristan), and her troubled teenage granddaughter, Julie (Grace Tarnow), who has come to live with her in rural Indiana. Julie’s mother is deceased and her life with her father (Anthony Panzica) and none-too-sympathetic stepmother (Faith Marie) in Pittsburgh has been hell. Julie knows they view her as an intrusion and obligation. With her grandmother, a virtual stranger, she is non-communicative, her vacant expression and silence a thinly veiled camouflage for rage. She is also a small-time thief.

But when Karen finds her necklace in Julie’s belongings, without comment Karen wears it in front of Julie, who clearly sees it around her grandmother’s neck. The non-verbal exchange says it all. It’s one of the many well-executed, subtle details in this film directed by John Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly, Prancer), and written by its star, Dorothy Tristan, who also happens to be Hancock’s wife.

Karen is determined to establish a relationship with her granddaughter, who is her only living heir and connection to the late daughter she is still mourning. At the same time, it’s an adjustment for her. She’s widowed, has lived alone for years, and is set in her ways. And Julie is not easy.

Still, when she hears Julie sing, she discerns a real talent and is thrilled. She feels a profound genetic bond with her granddaughter—after all, she too was a talented performer—but equally important, Karen believes artistic expression is the greatest path to healing and freedom. She manages to convince Julie to audition for the school musical, The Looking Glass (the metaphor is a little heavy-handed), and though Julie resists the idea at first, she finally submits to an audition and lands the lead. She also lands a boyfriend.

Julie and Karen’s shared journey is not smooth sailing. Julie’s boyfriend betrays her and she attempts suicide (an effort that fails), while Grandma, who has had a heart attack, is growing confused and forgetful. She may be suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Julie’s father and stepmother, Sybil, arrive on the scene and create further tension. Sybil is a particularly unpleasant woman—a wicked-stepmother prototype—garish in appearance, loud and abrasive. Regrettably, she and another stepmother figure in the film border on caricature. Certain events in the film unfold predictably.

But the most serious shortfall in an otherwise lovely movie is the school’s production of The Looking Glass. For starters, it’s unclear if the set-piece is intended to be taken literally, and if so it seriously misfires. The actors are middle-aged and no high-school production is that good, no matter how gifted its student performers may be. If, however, the production number is conceived as some flight of fancy on Karen’s part, it’s equally off the mark. It just feels alien in this delicate, realistic slice-of-life film. Either way, it’s jarring and goes on far too long.

Still, the movie as a whole is so well-acted—and so pleasing to look at—it hits all the right notes in portraying an evolving intergenerational relationship in a story centering on legacy and continuity. It’s no coincidence that Hancock shot the film in his childhood home and that much of Tristan’s screenplay is autobiographical. Both artists, who are in their 70s, have said the themes addressed in the film have personal resonance for them.

Tristan creates a complex portrait of an aging woman—at moments frail and paradoxically feisty, too—who is committed to impart worthwhile values and ambitions to her granddaughter, while struggling with her own mortality. Tarnow, a newcomer who showed up at an open call, is impressively self-possessed and poised as an angry young girl who emerges from her guarded shell and morphs into a three-dimensional human being well on her way to adulthood. It’s an auspicious debut.

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