Alone for the first time since their parents died, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, the three protagonists of the 2004 adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, attempt to make the villainous Count Olaf’s dingy attic into a semi-livable situation. Klaus despairingly asks, “Do you think anything will ever feel like home again?” In response, Violet, the inventor, begins to construct a tent from curtains, using a lamp to project a silhouette of their parents onto the wall. As the three siblings gather inside, the narrator defines this created space as a “sanctuary… a word which here means a small, safe place in a troubling world, like an oasis in a vast desert or an island in a stormy sea.”
This image of the Baudelaire family, reunited for one final time, has remained with me, as has the definition of family as a sanctuary. It has influenced how I interact with films; I am often on the lookout for the ways in which family and home act as safe spaces for characters in a way that romantic relationships, friendships, and personal success, while often more integral to plot and conflict, do not.
While family dramas grappling with conflict and the decay of relationships have always been popular in film and television, it is rarer to see a positive depiction of the family as a haven from the dangers of the outside world and rarer still to see such depictions center on female characters. This year, both Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell managed to buck the trends and do just that: portray deeply authentic families with women at the helm.
Gerwig invites her audience into the warmth of the March family home early on in Little Women. Like Laurie, we watch from the sidelines the hustle and bustle of Marmee and her four daughters around the house late at night. And, like Laurie, we are soon welcomed into these joyous, frenetic moments, all the Christmases and play rehearsals and cozyings up by the fire to read the latest letter from Mr. March. Every scene in the earlier half of the film’s chronological timeline is lit with a warm glow, whether its source is a small candle burning on Jo’s desk or the golden hues of a perfect autumn day. In an interview with Indiewire, Gerwig says that she wanted the March home to feel like a “jewel box inside” that, once opened, becomes “a world where these girls can be ambitious and big and thrive.” In the film’s screenplay, she describes it as a “slightly medieval utopia of artists and thinkers.” Throughout the film, their home continually functions as a safe space where the March sisters can learn, grow, and create without the same financial and critical pressures they face in adulthood, from their elaborately costumed plays to Jo’s feverish attic writing and Amy’s artistic pursuits.
Always present, just off to the side, stands Laura Dern’s Marmee. Both Alcott and Gerwig emphasize that, although the March home functions for much of the story without the presence of a father, it cannot exist without a mother as its unifying force. In her screenplay, Gerwig describes Marmee as someone who “creates magic where there is none, and enables her girls to be brave.” It is Marmee who welcomes the orphaned Laurie into the family, urges Jo and Amy to reconcile after their fights, and rushes from Concord to Washington and back again to nurse both Mr. March and Beth back to health. She keeps the family together even when outside circumstances would threaten to tear it apart. Marmee also embodies key traits of each of her daughters, something that Gerwig and costume designer Jacqueline Durran worked to incorporate into the character’s appearance. Durran gave each March girl a signature color (Amy often wears blue, Meg green, and so on); Marmee’s costume consciously comprises each of these shades.
Although the sanctuary of the March home is primarily defined by the unique interactions of mother and daughters (Little Women is – surprise! – quite a fitting title), they readily incorporate the “little men” – Laurie, Mr. Brooke, Mr. March, Mr. Laurence, and Professor Bhaer – into the home’s warm safety as well. Frequently, these gathering moments occur around the family dinner table, often acting as respites from moments of pain, such as the Christmas reunion after Mr. March and Beth’s illnesses.
In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang takes a similar approach, albeit in a wildly different setting. Billi’s family repeatedly convenes around tables spread with a mouthwatering assortment of home-cooked food. Ignoring the protests of her family members, Nai Nai constantly bustles around, checking in on her grandchildren and preparing for the wedding (that she doesn’t know is just a ruse to get the family back together). When, on her first night back in China, Billi is too overcome by emotion to dig into the extensive spread of food, Nai Nai holds up her chopsticks and takes it upon herself to feed Billi a bite instead. This simple act encapsulates Billi and Nai Nai’s relationship; just as the older feeds the younger with food, Nai Nai also teaches Billi about how to love, how to live, how to sacrifice, how to bring a family together. More than China, more than America, Nai Nai is Billi’s home, her safe space.
Zooming out from the one-on-one relationship between Nai Nai and Billi, it becomes obvious that The Farewell is a film grounded in family in all its complexity. Whereas in Little Women, the March home has always been a sanctuary for the four sisters, Billi feels out of place among her Chinese family members after being in the United States for so many years. In an interview with Vox, Wang describes the film as “a fish-out-of-water story” about the “universal… sense of not belonging.”
Yet, even as The Farewell examines the feeling of being out of place, the film becomes an exploration of how a family can knit themselves back together after years of being separated. The response of Billi’s extended family to Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis is not one of breaking apart but one of coming together. There is strength in numbers and the family gathers, not only to say goodbye to Nai Nai but also to share each others’ grief. In a particularly poignant scene, when Billi questions the ethics of lying to her grandmother, her uncle illuminates their reasoning behind the lie. His response sharply shifts the Western perspective of Billi and the audience: “We’re not telling her because it is our responsibility to carry this emotional burden for her.” The scenes where the family congregates around the kitchen table or walks in slow motion down the street outside Nai Nai’s apartment take on special significance; the family is visually and emotionally united in their devotion to Nai Nai, in their willingness to take on pain so that she does not have to. Their lie may not keep Nai Nai safe forever, but it has brought a family together under the banner of love for their matriarch.
What makes these moments of gathering, of safety, of family so sacred is the very fact that the characters in both Little Women and The Farewell are acutely aware of how temporary they are. This constant struggle defines the two films. In intercutting the two timelines of childhood and adulthood, Gerwig encourages the audience to feel the same nostalgia as the March sisters. In The Farewell, the audience, like Billi’s family, know what Nai Nai does not and subsequently feel the ever-present threat of loss as well. Both films grapple with the ephemeral nature of memory and the passage of time that relegates our fondest moments and dearest family members to the past. In an interview with The Guardian, Wang explains that The Farewell has “this feeling… of being unable to hold on to past memories and feelings – unable to find anything concrete that represents home.” Similarly, in the action of her screenplay, Gerwig describes the film’s flashback scenes as taking place “in the snow-globe of girlhood and memory that is ever-present but forever gone.”
Ultimately, both The Farewell and Little Women arrive at the same bittersweet conclusion: as safe and comforting as family may be, the act of stepping outside this comfort zone, however deeply painful, is also deeply necessary. Both Jo and Billi have been profoundly shaped by their respective families. By the end of the film, Jo has taken to heart the lessons learned from Marmee and each of her sisters. Billi, initially horrified by her family’s decision to lie to Nai Nai, has come to understand the sincere love behind such a choice. Each woman is anchored by the family they leave behind as they return to New York City (a century and a half apart).
The final scenes of both films encapsulate this conflict in a single image. In Little Women, Jo watches as the first copies of her book are printed; this moment simultaneously immortalizes her childhood forever in print and yet also propels her decisively into independent adulthood. At the end of The Farewell, Billi walks the streets of New York City, suddenly punching the air with a loud “Ha!” in what is both a clear homage to Nai Nai and also an assertion of Billi’s own ability to continue on, in whatever open-ended form that may take. Wang’s screenplay pinpoints this moment; Billi, “instead of crumbling… lifts her chin and inhales deeply” as she shouts with the “spirit of Nai Nai.” Both Billi and Jo carry the warmth and deep meaning of their families with them even beyond each film’s final frames.