Passion Fish ★★★½

Literary and laid back in ways May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) can only strive towards. John Sayles (this is admittedly the first film I’ve seen of his) attains the restfulness and ease both seek. The characters catch up to the film. They are restricted to backwoods Louisiana for different but not dissimilar reasons. Rennie (David Straitharn) and Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recur as potential male companions, but everyone else visits once and only once. People pass through while the two remain stationary.

Fade-to-blacks are usually used as prelude to a passage of time, but Sayles consistently and overtly uses them to emphasize a lack of movement or change. That progress is at a standstill for May-Alice because of her self-absorbed obstinance. Stasis, and the gradual movement away from it, and the acceptance that erases it, is at the center of Passion Fish. From May-Alice’s attitude towards her paralysis to Chantelle’s inner demons and dependency on her job as caretaker. When Rennie takes the two out for a late-film boat sojourn it critically signals movement within stasis, an openness to their surroundings and to each other.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard give two beautifully realized performances as equally willful women with a push-pull dependency built on hesitance. The former spouts and drinks, swears and lashes out. The latter desperately bottles everything to keep control of herself, her guardedness hiding immense vulnerability. Chantelle is at once sheepish and direct. Their friendship, though both would hesitate to call it that for most of the runtime, is constantly shifting and developing, the two actresses always able to pinpoint where their characters are (even if the audience isn’t made privy) at any given moment. May-Alice comes to realize she needs Chantelle (both for support and as someone willing to stand up to her) long before Chantelle admits this, or accepts this as mutually beneficial beyond survival.

Sayles does right by the Louisiana milieu outside of some random bouts of broadness (Precious anyone?), recognizing that there was a reason May-Alice left Louisiana as soon as she was old enough, without dipping into pandering. Passion Fish could so easily smack of a been-there-done-that TV movie (or shitty movie) territory or worse, of a black character entering the scene to help stabilize a white character. And though Chantelle is introduced into May-Alice’s story, it very quickly becomes a co-lead film, where each are paid equal mind, mutually dependent, not one an appendage of the other. In fact, as great as McDonnell is, Woodard as Chantelle emerges as the character and performance that resonates more deeply. Have I mentioned how amazing she is in this? Because I’d say from all my 1992 watches and re-watches so far, it’s this lead female performance that has knocked my socks off. Interracial friendships and bonding depiction in film can also easily end up being a catalyst allowing white people to feel good about themselves (for a most egregious example, see; The Help), placement and purpose renders them props no matter how well-written or performed the individual character(s) is(are). Passion Fish sidesteps all this for a deft and carefully observed study of two fully realized women whose fates are intertwined for better and worse.

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