julie johnson

2001

Directed by: Bob Gosse

Written by: Bob Gosse and Wendy Hammond

After a long hibernation, this Lili Taylor/Courtney Love film is finally seeing the light of day, and not before time. After a brief festival run in 2002, for some reason this thought-provoking tale was buried in the rubble that is Courtney Love's career.

Some viewers might be weirded out by how young The O.C star Mischa Barton looks. It's not a trick of the light, this movie was made years ago when Barton actually was young enough to be wearing a school uniform for real. Finally the film is getting a run in 2005 on Here!, the American gay TV channel, and a larger audience will get to judge for themselves the complicated issues that are dug up by Julie Johnson's complex journey of self-discovery.

Julie Johnson (Lili Taylor) is a New Jersey housewife who is smarter than even she thinks she is. She's the classic example of potential without opportunity. She got married young because that's what she figured she was expected to do. She had kids, kept house for her policeman husband and never considered that there might be more to life. She buys a copy of American Scientist each week with her groceries and knows her overbearing, unsympathetic husband well enough to hide the magazines from him. But every day she expands her knowledge and wonders what it would be like to know more.

Finally, against her husband's wishes, she persuades her best friend Claire (Courtney Love) to come to a computer class with her as a stepping stone to maybe getting their GEDs (high school equivalency). There she meets an inspirational teacher who helps her begin to unlock an unlikely genius for theoretical physics.

As Julie's eyes are opened to a new world, things begin to go badly on the home front. Her husband orders her to stop going to class. Finally, unable to stop learning now that she has begun (education here is presented not only as a choice but almost as a kind of addiction), Julie leaves her husband. She and Claire (who has also left her husband) move in together with Julie's two children. Finally, gradually, Julie admits to Claire that she's in love with her. After initial resistance Claire admits the feeling is mutual. Courtney Love manages to put aside her inately sexual screen presence and her performance in the love scenes is both subtle and touching. Their affair is sweetly passionate, almost like two teenage girls finding love for the first time.

In fact, just about everything Julie does feels like she's doing it for the first time. Much praise must go to Lili Taylor for successfully bringing out both the girlish and womanly aspects of the character. There's a strange naiveté to her actions that is thoroughly disarming, especially when she is thrown emotionally up against inevitable realities. The dissolution of her marriage is real. Her alienation from her family and friends is real. Claire's doubts about their relationship are real. The responsibilities she has towards her children are real. However, Julie remains singleminded in her determination to learn, and from the beginning it is simply obvious that it will cost her everything.

Julie's life revelations don't exactly sit well with her eldest daughter Lisa (Mischa Barton). After all, isn't the mother supposed to the be the grown up and together one? After the thrill of first love and first touches is gone, even Claire starts to feel the pinch. Announcing you are a lesbian and moving in with your female lover is not an easy way to live. Love and passion are all well and good, but what about having a life? Friends? A future? While Julie remains stuck in the clouds of her sexual awakening and her ambitions, she doesn't really even notice that Claire is slipping away. When faced with Claire's choice she sees her lover's actions as a defection. However, as painful as losing Claire is, Julie's sexual revolution is ultimately not as important to her as her intellectual one.

To really enjoy this film it is necessary for us as the audience to go along with the assumption the writers make for us, which is that for Julie, education and family life are incompatible. It's a difficult assumption to swallow. I guess it is hard for someone who didn't grow up in that kind of oppressive atmosphere to truly appreciate why the choice needs to be made at all. It seems odd to me in this day and age that a husband would forbid his wife from growing as a person. Even Claire, who initially understands Julie's quest for freedom, comes to fear and ultimately resent Julie's burgeoning intellectualism. She begins to feel that Julie looks down on her for not having the same thirst and capacity for knowledge. It isn't just a heterosexual happy ending that seems impossible for Julie, but any happy ending at all.

While Julie denies it, perhaps she does feel superior. This is a film that deals in absolutes. Julie will let nothing stand in her way once she has found her calling. Claire needs to be totally supportive of Julie, or else she's siding with the enemy. Julie's husband feels that all of his needs must be met before hers, simply because he is the man. Julie's children don't understand why anything needs to change at all and they rebel against that change as one would expect.

In the end Julie's resolve remains remarkably unshaken and her journey is monumental, but it also feels a bit cold and empty. It's difficult to fault her for wanting it all, but she certainly does not emerge with everything she wants. In fact, she has willingly sacrificed almost every relationship she holds dear in her lust for knowledge. Certainly she will continue on and have a more productive life than before, but it is hard to put a value judgement on it and say she'll be better off for it. We get the sense that she has given up at least as much as she has gained. Far from achieving everything in life, Julie has done nothing more than simply set her personal priorities in order.

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Last updated: 14 May 2008