I remember a recent conversation with a friend of mine during which we discussed the odd nature of memory. How strange it was, we contemplated, that we were aware of hardships of the past, but were most easily able to clearly recall details of characterized by a positive aura. We inherently knew that, before winter break began, for instance, preparing for midterms was a nightmare of little sleep and academic anxiety. But, inexplicably, we could more distinctly list off even the most baroque of details revolving around car trips to other neighborhoods during slow weekends, around days of indulgent leisure. Mundane pessimism is easy to forget; simple joys, past laughs, remain frozen in time and quick to pinpoint.
During the course of this conversation, it washed over us that our past is nothing more than a selective collection of memories. Most are sunny in their tone. Years from now, when we’ve become successful adults who no longer have to worry about extra credit opportunities or finals, college will not be reflected upon as something abominable. We’ll tell youths younger than us that it can be difficult with a subtle laugh, only to turn around and overemphasize just what a fun time attending a university can be. It's bizarre how the way we’re presently living may be forgotten in the near future, or, at least, romanticized, in the near future.
Similarly, 1997’s Eve’s Bayou is a choral coming-of-age movie that draws upon the curiously rhapsodic quality of memory, and how it shapes the ways in which we live on a day to day basis. It is told in flashback, narrated by the now-grown title character. We are transported to 1962, the year of Eve’s tenth birthday and the year that she, as she believes, killed her father. Eve (Jurnee Smollett) is the middle child in the Batiste family, a wealthy clan living in the upper-class part of sultry Louisiana. Her older sister, the thirteen-going-on-fourteen Cisely (Meagan Good), is blossoming into a beautiful young woman, and her younger brother (Jake Smollett) is raucous but sweet. Eve’s father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), is a well-respected family doctor whose womanizing habits might lead to his downfall; her mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), is a housewife on the verge of unraveling.
For the most part, Eve has had a wonderful childhood, playful and carefree. But in 1962, everything changed: it was the year she lost her father; the year she lost her innocence; the year she discovered herself as being something more than someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. It all begins when she accidentally witnesses one of her father’s many infidelities during a house party — then and there does she begin to wonder just how much her naïveté has clouded her reality. Her sister, at an age where she believes she knows everything about all subjects, assures her that she didn’t see what she think she saw. But Eve knows that something is off, thus beginning a coming-of-age process that perhaps might be arriving too soon.
Structurally, Eve’s Bayou is a melodrama slightly more subdued than what you’d find from Tennessee Williams. The emotions are inflated; the interweaving plot lines come together with breathy cohesion. But it stands far away from its more soap operatic counterparts, as it feels affectionate rather than broad, down-to-earth rather than exaggerated. It is unusual in that it is a coming-of-age film unreliant on old tropes of finding oneself in a movie, the drama sometimes earnest yet sometimes brutally honest. Eve is not growing up purely for our enjoyment, but because she has to; the idolization of her parents is slipping away, and her fairytale land of a world is slowly resembling one that a more cynical adult might be experiencing themselves.
Eve’s Bayou also makes for the writing and directing debut of Kasi Lemmons, whose artful eye and thoughtful consideration of the beauty of family ties allows for the film to warm our hearts just as much as it causes them to ache. Not wanting to make a despondent film, rather a truthful one, Lemmons injects dramatic nuance into trappings that might cause the film to seem overwrought in the eyes of many. What she achieves here, I think, is the same lovability we’d find in other great coming-of-age films, like Almost Famous or Dazed and Confused. The characters are distinctly drawn, but we can somehow find ourselves in them, or, at least, their experiences. Its accessibility vitalizes it.
And its actors bring an intimate repartee that sells the vital familial bonds showcased in the film. Leading actress Jurnee Smollett, ten years old here, is responsive and expressive, an accomplished hybrid of amenability and curiosity. Meagan Good is heartrending and oftentimes touching as a little girl who, despite being a little girl, thinks she’s a woman ready to take on the world. Samuel L. Jackson is strong, making an impression as an almost-legendary figure of the past in what would otherwise be a background role; Lynn Whitfield is sympathetic as a spouse beginning to lose her faith in just about everyone around her. I especially liked Debbi Morgan as Eve’s spiritual aunt, who tries to gently push the girl into a matured state while dealing with problems of her own.
Few issues penetrate Eve’s Bayou’s stylish, emotionally encompassing surface besides a couple unconvincing delves into the otherworldly that feel out of place in an otherwise richly conceptualized drama. Profound and texturally true, it is a film of indisputable refinement, making the simplicity of human existence something awesome to behold. A-