Kids, I like a good dramedy. When done well, it’s the genre that packs the biggest emotional punch for me, because it strikes me in many ways as the most realistic and relatable. There’s a lot of deep, shitty pain in our lives, but also a lot of hilarity, and sometimes those things hit us at exactly the same time. When a movie can capture this, and balance some well-observed, slightly absurd comedy with a character’s dramatic arc that’s both believable and sufficiently dark, it’ll just kill me. Although it’s far from a perfect movie, Hello, My Name is Doris pretty much hit this sweet spot.
The story concerns the titular Doris, played by Sally Field, an office grunt who’s mourning the recent loss of her mother, for whom she’d cared for years, when a strapping new coworker named John gets cute with her in an elevator. Doris goes on to develop a friendship and a massive crush on the much younger John, coming out of her shell and going after him with a kind of balls-to-the-wall bravery that I wish I’d had a little more of during my dating years (minus the mild stalking). John’s a good sport and actually a pretty caring friend, but he obliviously leads Doris on, partly in an “I’m a dude and I didn’t realize you had feelings” way and partly in an “I’m young and I only kind of think of older people as people” way. Eventually, Doris confesses her feelings, and John’s rejection throws her into a crisis. But as it turns out, a pretty boy turning her down is actually Doris’s least bad problem. She’s dealing with major grief, not only for her mother but for what her life could have been had she not devoted herself to her care. And for years, Doris has essentially been a socially isolated hoarder. But the crisis with John forces her to comes to terms with her past sacrifices, and ultimately she puts her unrequited love in perspective and decides to soldier on and live bigger.
Sounds pretty uplifting, right? I imagine it would be, if it weren’t the movie you were watching on a cross-country flight to see your father in the hospital after he’s had a massive heart attack. These are, to put it mildly, emotionally heightened circumstances under which to watch a movie. I’d been awoken at 5 AM that morning by a call from a family friend letting me know he’d taken my dad to the hospital, and then spent all morning in limbo, trading calls with my mother and sister and trying to get information from the hospital he was transferred to. When I finally spoke to the attending cardiac surgeon, he told me Dad had suffered a massive heart attack 7–10 days beforehand, and though he believed my father would ultimately recover, he agreed it was a good idea for me to get back as soon as possible. I hung up, bought a ticket on the first flight I could get, and showered and packed in a flurry. As my husband was driving me to LAX, the surgeon called again. Dad needed emergency surgery. Would I give him permission to intubate? I did, and then that was the last I heard until I landed.
The flight seemed interminable. I tried to distract myself with a book but couldn’t concentrate on it. So I turned my attention to the in-flight movie.
Perhaps predictably under the circumstances, I fixated on the similarities between Doris and my dad. Like Doris, he was extremely socially isolated. The family friend who took him to the hospital was one of the only people to whom Dad wasn’t related that he had regular contact with. Also like Doris, he was pretty much a hoarder. Ever since my parents separated about fifteen years earlier, dad’s house had steadily amassed more and more junk, to the point where some rooms could not be entered. These similarities are so literal, so on-the-nose, that it’s almost unbelievable to me that this is movie I watched on the day he died. If someone wrote a coincidence like this into a work of fiction, I’d think it was way too heavy-handed.
But what killed me, what made me blubber like a child at the end of the movie, was not the similarity between Dad and Doris but the major difference: Doris faced her grief and her fears and ultimately took her life back. And as I sat on the plane, I knew that even if Dad did survive his surgery and was able to recover function and live independently, he never would.
Ultimately he didn’t survive the surgery, as I learned when I landed. I suppose I started grieving then, but as the movie made me realize, I’d already been mourning his life for a long time.