BY ROGER THOMAS
I read a story years ago that went something like this: A woman went to a counselor. The counselor posed a question, “Of your three children, which one do you love most.” The mother stated that she loved them all the same. The counselor said that was impossible; she had to love one more than the others. After an argument the woman said, “Ok, which ever child needs me, I love that child the most. When one of them is sick, I love that child the most. When one of my children is in trouble, not naughty, but a really bad situation, I love that child the most. Whichever one needs me the most, is the one I love more at that moment.”
Seymour and Dawn Levov, the parents in “American Pastoral” only have one child, Merry. However, throughout the film, I kept thinking of that story. For much of the film, their child is in trouble, and in their own unique ways, Seymour and Dawn just keep right on loving her more. If the Levovs went to see that fictional counselor, I think they would tell him that they love Dawn more every day. Seymour would be especially vocal about his love for her.
“American Pastoral” is the second film released this year that is based on a book by Philip Roth. The earlier film was “Indignation.” Of the two, I liked “Indignation” more than “Pastoral” for several reasons, but both films challenged me to think and reflect on my life and the ones who populate my existence.
There is a lot of good in “Pastoral.” Even though it is based on a novel, there is much history in the film. Race riots, Vietnam protests, Civil Rights movements, LBJ, Watergate, and other historical events are all part of the backdrop for one family’s story.
There are also a trio of good performances from the three leads: Ewan McGregor who also directed the film, Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, and Dakota Fanning. These three offer some moments of joy and many minutes of heartache. But their performances always seem authentic. Beyond these three there are several supporting players who populate the story over and over again.
The film ends open ended. The ending shot offers ambiguity. What will happen next? I am not sure if the novel ended the same way, but I liked the ending very much.
All of this is not to say that “American Pastoral” is a perfect film. In fact, I thought there were several subplots that did not need to be explored. These probably came from the book, but they should have been trimmed. There are also many characters which is a little confusing at the beginning. These weaknesses among others are why I think “Indignation” is a better film than this one.
I started with a story and will end with one. Back in the 80’s, the youngest daughter of former President Jimmy Carter, Amy Carter, was arrested while participating in a protest. My mother and I were talking on the phone and she brought up the news story. She went on to say, “I am glad that you and your brother never got involved in that protesting thing.”
This is not what she meant that night, but this is how I interpreted it. “I am glad that you never cared enough about any cause to go out and do something about it.” That is not what my mother said, but it is what I heard that night. Seymour and Dawn live the life of distraught parents whose daughter chooses a cause over family.
“American Pastoral” is not a perfect film, but it resonated with me as a parent and as one who holds fast to my beliefs. I pray my children will also have strong convictions, and will always seek to support those in righteous ways.