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Monday, September 19, 2011

Fat on Film at TIFF

Emma Levie as "Lena",
directed by Christophe van Rompaey.

I’ve been busy attending TIFF for the past couple of weeks, and for those of us film lovers, it’s a cinematic feast. For fat film lovers like me, however, it’s a rare treat to find a film that deals with the subject of fat girls. So I was understandably excited when I read the description for “Lena”, and made sure it was one of my choices.

Lena” is a Dutch film starring Emma Levie in the title role. Lena is a 17-year-old girl with the pitifully low self-esteem characteristic of many fat girls. In the opening scene, the camera is fixed on her face in closeup as she is having sex with some anonymous young guy in a dark back room. When he finishes with her, she asks him if it was okay. He says yes, and she tries to kiss him, but he quickly pulls away. “Hey. Don’t go falling in love or anything,” he tells her. Then he zips up and leaves.

So far, a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a sexually active fat girl. Many of us know what it’s like to be treated like a sexual receptacle, and not the girlfriend. We see Lena go from day to day watching her skinny friends chase guys and be chased by them, doing most of the work at a daycare centre, and getting criticized by her mother for her weight. She feels like an outcast and she is one. But one night, after a particularly lonely party, she’s heading home on her motorcycle and sees a young guy running down the street with cop cars pursuing him. She drives up alongside him and he smiles and says hi, in mid-stride. Then he hops on her motorcycle and they speed away.

This is how she meets Daan, exactly the kind of goodlooking young guy her friends go through like different shades of nail polish. He turns out to be really nice, and not only that -- he genuinely likes her. He asks for her number and actually calls. They become a couple, and he asks her to move in. She jumps at the chance, not only as a way to develop the relationship, but to escape her critical, suffocating mother.

Daan’s father is an odd loner, spending most of his time in an upstairs room, listening to jazz music and repairing musical instruments. Daan treats him like shit, but Lena feels drawn to him and begins spending time with him, bringing him tea and keeping him company. Meanwhile, Lena discovers that Daan is lying to her, committing petty crimes. Although Lena is a downtrodden fat girl, she still has something of a backbone, and confronts Daan with his lies. They get into a big fight and she leaves, going back to her mother’s apartment. Unfortunately, mom won’t let her move back in, so she’s on the street. Daan’s father comes to her rescue and allows her to sleep in his room. For awhile, the three of them co-exist in the house, but she and Daan’s father become closer, and one night he tries to kiss her. He tells her he thinks she’s beautiful. At first, she pushes him away angrily. But then, inexplicably, the next day she goes up to his room and they fuck like gangbusters.

Unfortunately, this is where the film began to degenerate for me. Many women jump into relationships prematurely, either because they’re desperate to have someone, or because they’re trying to escape a bad situation (and usually end up getting into another). When I was Lena’s age, I made similarly bad decisions, and maybe that’s why I reacted so strongly to this film.

One of the things that irritated me was that Lena wasn’t even particularly large. She was merely pudgy, at most. I want to see a film about a genuinely large girl or woman – 200 pounds and up – coping with life and the way her weight affects her, and triumphing over her challenges. I want to see a film about a fat girl who loves herself and refuses to be treated like shit. This film wasn’t it. Lena just kind of coasts through life, not thinking about her actions or the consequences of her actions. Perhaps it was realistic in the sense that her character was only 17, and how many of us make the wisest decisions when we’re 17? But Lena wasn’t stupid. She was a keen observer of the people around her (as all fat girls are), and she’d already had enough hard knocks in life to know better … and that’s what irritated me.

This film did a very good job, however, of showing how even a few pounds can make a huge difference in both the way the world sees a fat girl, and in the way she sees herself. When you’re constantly ignored, devalued, and criticized, unless you have an extremely strong sense of self and supportive people around you, you’re not going to make good decisions.

At the end of the film, all hell breaks loose when Lena confesses to Daan that his father has been “touching her”, and chaos ensues, with Lena fleeing back to her mother’s house. When the police show up on her doorstep, we can see that her character hasn’t evolved at all. She’s merely traded one bad situation for another, yet again.

Lena” could have been so much better. I wish this film had more of an uplifting message for us fat girls, and not merely relegate us to hopelessness, yet again.


  1. I thought that "Real Women Have Curves," which starred America Ferrera in her pre-Ugly Betty days, was a wonderful film. It showed a young woman who was mostly content with herself but who had an overbearing mother who insisted that she needed to lose weight. The character was also trying to find her place in the world.
    "Sweetie" was another great film which featured a heavy woman in the lead role. It was quirky, sad and funny at the same time. Unfortunately it did not have a happy ending. But Sweetie, the title character, was badass!
    Another film which I enjoyed is a bit sappy but nonetheless had a positive message. "Babycakes" was, I believe, a made for TV movie which starred Rikki Lake before her talk show days. This one has a happy ending.

  2. I have not seen Real Women Have Curves or Sweetie, although I've heard of them both, in a good way. I did see Babycakes when it was aired many years ago, and thought it was a cute but poor remake of the much better German film "Zuckerbaby", about a large woman in love with a hunky subway conductor. I keep meaning to post a review about it for my Fat on Film column but have not gotten around to it yet. If you ever see it in a dvd store or wherever else you rent videos, I highly recommend "Zuckerbaby" ... it is a great film with a cheeky sense of humour, although it doesn't skimp on drama either, or the realities of being a fat woman in a thin-obsessed world.