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flick pick | Unhook the Stars 1998
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Written by: Helen Caldwell, Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Marisa Tomei, Gerard Depardieu, Jake Lloyd
Language: English
Look for it at the video store under:
Watch it when you’re in the mood for
something: feel-good
The critic says: / 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis Mildred [Rowlands] lives in a beautiful, rambling old house in a pretty little suburban town. Her husband passed away some time back, and her beloved son has long since grown up, moved out of the house, and gotten married. When her surly teenage daughter finally packs up and storms out of the house, Mildred finds herself living all alone in her nice big house, with no more children to demand her constant care and devotion. She busies herself by cleaning house and grudgingly doing her daughter’s former paper route, masking her loneliness by maintaining those small rituals that make up her day-to-day existence. Then one day, Mildred’s neighbor Monica [Tomei] shows up at her doorstep with her small son J.J. [Lloyd] in tow. Monica’s young, troubled and not a small bit trashy, but as she defensively explains to Mildred, she’s no doormat. Which is why she’s kicked her lunk of a husband straight to the curb, after he had the nerve to hit her the night before. Unfortunately, the situation’s left Monica in a bit of a bind, because she absolutely has to go to her job at the dairy factory, but needs someone to look after J.J. while she's at work. Mildred’s all too eager to take J.J. into her care, and soon finds herself watching after him daily, a sort of second mother to the boy. As the bond grows between Mildred and J.J., an unlikely friendship develops between Monica and Mildred as well.

Review I don’t know why I bother reading video box covers anymore – they never fail to completely mislead. Case and point: Unhook the Stars is billed as a comedy full of "outrageous fun," with exclamation points galore just to underscore how zany! and funny! the characters and storyline are all supposed to be. Instead, Nick Cassavetes’ lovely little film turns out to be a quiet character study about a lonely older woman, learning to make her own rules when it comes to the relationships that define her life. It’s all drama and almost no comedy, which, in a pleasant surprise, turns out to make for a much better film than I actually anticipated. What’s great about Unhook the Stars is that it never degenerates into the sort of sentimental TV movie-of-the-week drivel that these sorts of old-woman-befriends-young-mother-and-kid storylines have a tendency to become. There aren’t any Hollywood-style screaming matches or gut-wrenching confessions or other Big Pivotal Emotional Moments accompanied by cheesy swelling soundtrack. There aren’t any real major events at all in the lives of Mildred and Monica, just small decisions and tiny moments that nevertheless build up to have a real impact on their sense of happiness and well-being. Both Gena Rowlands and Marisa Tomei play their characters beautifully, with enough restraint that they never become caricatures of "the repressed and depressed proper old lady", or "the wild and crazy young single mom". Their friendship, and the strength that both manage to draw from their relationships with each other and with J.J., develops slowly and quietly, which is why it feels 100% natural, never forced. Way more "heartwarming" flicks should take their cue from Unhook the Stars, which understands that melodrama only gets in the way of letting your audience connect with the characters: what makes these people and their emotions seem so much more true-to-life than the vast majority of characters that end up on movie/tv screens, is that their lives are every bit as small, and uneventful, but nevertheless wonderful, as our own. —reviewed by Y. Sun

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