This post contains spoilers for The Meyerowitz Stories.
The Meyerowitz Stories — Noah Baumbach’s film about a dysfunctional New York family that hits Netflix Friday — is a classic dramedy. Parts of it — any scene which combines Emma Thompson and cold, gooey shark soup — will make you laugh, while other moments are truly moving. That's family for you, and this is a film all about the insane ups and downs that only your relatives can give you.
But there's one scene in particular that stood out for me, because in a narrative filled with neurotic men, it allowed a woman to speak her piece.
The movie, set up in almost short story format, follows the travails of the Meyerowitz family. There's Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch, who once enjoyed moderate fame as a sculptor, and believes he was robbed by unappreciative critics; Maureen (Emma Thompson), Harold's third wife, and the world's most toxic cook; Danny (Adam Sandler), the musician turned stay-at-home dad who is sending his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college, and getting a divorce in the process; Matthew (Ben Stiller) a successful business manager who lives in Los Angeles so as to escape his family's madness; and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), their somewhat asocial but zen sister who still always shows up with cookies.
The siblings — half-siblings, to be precise: Danny and Jean are from Harold's first wife, while he had Matthew with his second — come together to plan a retrospective at Bard, the college where Harold taught for over 30 years, and the same that Eliza is currently attending as a film student. But days before the show, Harold is rushed to the hospital with a brain haemorrhage, which leaves him on the verge of death.
Friends and former colleagues start arriving to pay their respects, and everything seems fine, until Jean sees one old, feeble man helped out of a car by an attendant, and bolts off running into the woods. Later, she tells her brother that this was an artist friend of their father's who exposed himself to her when she was a teenager visiting for the summer. This is the closest we come to having Jean's story told — the film focuses on Danny, Matthew and Eliza — and it's an emotional moment. Irate, her brothers decide to take matters into their own hands, and beat up the old man's car for revenge.
This makes them feel great — they're almost glowing as they tell Jean the good news, and are met with utter disbelief. Did they think this would bring her catharsis? All they've done is bash in a sick old man with Alzheimers' headlights. She, on the other hand, still has to deal with this trauma, and will forever.
The scene is fascinating for two reasons. First, because it's what Elizabeth Marvel calls "wonderfully gender-centric" moment. "It just says so much about the difference between men and women," she told me in a phone call. The woman shares this deep, dark, disturbing story from her past, and rather than comfort her, or allow her to feel the emotion from this, her brothers immediately seek to exorcise their own shame and guilt at not having known about it. They seek revenge on the sexual predator to quell their own anger, rather than care about their sister's feelings.
But the other reason this scene has stuck with me is because of my own biases. As a frequent movie viewer, I was certain that Jean's memory would be overlaid onto a flashback to the assault. That never happens. It makes me realise just how often we do see sexual assault on film, and question how many of those scenes were really necessary.
"It's more powerful, I think in a way, when you just hear a person telling their story because it lives in their memory," Marvel said. "It’s what they hold in their mind. It’s what they see and feel. I think that something that’s powerful about that moment in the film is that it’s Jean’s story. It’s her memory. "
It's a fleeting moment — especially in a two-hour-long film filled with laugh-cry emotional moments — but it stands out because it sheds light on the characters, yes, but also on ourselves.
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