Angela (1995): Rebecca Miller’s Grim Melodrama

Sundance Film Festival 1995 (Dramatic Competition)–In Rebecca Miller’s grim, occasionally haunting  film, a 10-year-old girl named Angela (Miranda Stuart Rhyne) observes her manic-depressive mother Mae (Anna Thomson) going through scary, unpredictable mood swings.

A determined, parentless child, Angela is trying to save her family with magic that’s inspired by religion. Angela and her 6-year-old sister Ellie (Charlotte Blythe) devise all kinds of ominous rituals to ward off evil spirits. One of these ceremonies involves a fallen angel believed to be residing in the basement. Angela’s rituals are taken so seriously by Ellie that at one point she tries to fully reenact one of them– and almost burns down the house.

The feature debut of Rebecca Miller, the daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller, is a visually compelling but dramatically flawed Southern Gothic tales that looks at madness and fragility and childhood’s dreams and demons. Miller tries to convey the inner workings of Angela’s disturbed mind, a result of observing the disintegrating mental health of her mom.

Who’s Mae We learn that she was a rock singer whose mental instability had forced her to abandon her career. Mae is a woman who’s is equally disturbing when she’s in bed, as well as in rare moments of euphoria, as when she visits a local bar and solicits men with an hypersexual avidity.

Andrew (John Ventimigha), the girls’ separate but devoted father is a journeyman musician and sympathetic caretaker for his wife Mae. Inexplicably, the couple has agreed that Mae would not be given Lithium, because it might kill her “spirits.” No other medications (like Prosac) are mentioned, which may be a function of Miller’s negligent writing or faulty preparatory research for her picture.

Predictably, Mae’s condition worsens, and Angela’s battles to fight off evil intensify. Then, Mae decides that the two girls must leave home. Their destination is described by Angela as the “big nothing,” which for her is “the same place as dying.”

The girls begin a journey that’s both physical and symbolic. Along the way, they meet children, and encounter and appropriate a white horse The duo winds up at a traveling carnival, where Angela is almost molested by a sinister operator of a merry-go-round.

By mid-1990s standards, as a mental tale, “Angela” lacks realism or credibility, and the film is both intolerably grim and pretentiously overreaching. Miller imbues her Southern Gothic saga with bizarre allegorical elements. Not satisfied with making a small, intimate family tale, Miller borrows from David Lynch and Fellini surreal overtones. But the Lynchian and Felliniesque sequences are not grounded; they just evoke bizarre strangeness.

The first chapters, in which we see the world through Angela’s subjective POV, are credibly disturbing, capturing a childhood intuition of a world where bogeymen and angels co-exist. In moments, the film strives to be a clinical study of how children absorb their parents’ psychology. Hence, as Mae slips into a deeper depression, Angela’s ritualistic impulses become increasingly more extreme and frightening.

As a writer, Miller is responsible for narrative flaws, but as director, she is good with her cast, particularly Anna Thomson, who gives an unbearably anguished performance that often relies on quivering catatonia, and Miranda Stuart Rhyne, whose intensity is remarkable considering her age and lack of experience. The secondary characters, played by Ventimiglia, Ruth Maleczech as a neighbor, and Hynden Walch as a teen-age babysitter, are well cast but too sketchily drawn. In general, the movie may have too many bizarre angles and eccentric characters for its own good.

As noted, the visuals are impressive: “Angela” was the winner of the 1995 Filmmakers Trophy and the Jury’s Cinematography Prize for the brilliant Ellen Kuras.