If you go searching for a link between aging and crying, most of what you find is anecdotal. There’s a Washington Post piece from a few years back that hints at the links between aging and emotional expression; there’s also a handful of lifestyle blogs where people swear — at least anecdotally — that they cry more in their middle age than they ever did before. And look, maybe the science supports this argument and maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that my biggest personal takeaway from 2018 is this: after decades of dry eyes at the movie theater, this was the year I started crying during movies, and I’m starting to wonder why it took so long for me to cut loose.
Like any child from an Irish-Catholic family, I have always prided myself on my ability to keep my emotions in check. As such, tears were treated as something of a rare indulgence. Outside of the occasional breakup or period of emotional exhaustion — where weeks of work or school stress would effectively force a hard reset on my behalf —I was rarely moved to tears, and never as an emotional response to a work of art. Songs and films would tug on my heartstrings, sure, but crying represented a physical line for my emotions that I was extremely reluctant to cross. For better or worse, I just didn’t want to be that guy who cried during movies, and barring some kind of emotional switch as I entered my mid-30s, I figured I never would be.
The movie that broke the seal was A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona’s fantastical journey through a child’s emotional breakdown as he deals with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. Unlike other films about illness that barter solely in manipulation, A Monster Calls roots its sadness in confusion; Conor (Lewis MacDougall) knows there’s something wrong — perhaps permanently — with his mother, but what that might mean is too large and grotesque for his young mind to accept, so he retreats further and further into the world of The Monster. Still, reality can only be put off for so long, and Conor must eventually face the reality of the situation head-on or face a lifetime of regrets. The relationship between a boy and his mother is enough to set hearts on end, but it’s the inclusion of the boy’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) — as a woman too stricken by her own sadness to provide the emotional support her family needs — that crushed me in the film’s climax. I sat on the couch, sobbing uncontrollably, confused at how thoroughly this supposed kids’ film had broken through my hardened defenses.
Then there was 1985, Yen Tan’s black-and-white film about a dying AIDS victim returning home to spend one last Christmas with his family. Unlike most movies about the AIDS crisis — which contextualize the tragic loss of life against the important awareness raised by survivors and activists —1985 is set during a time period where the sickness is still much of a mystery. Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) knows enough about his disease to feel time slipping away, but there are no prospects of treatment or a prolonged life; he cannot even bring himself to be honest with his loved ones during his trip, choosing instead to max out his credit card on gifts he knows he’ll never have to repay. Filled with the types of conversations you have when you’re trying to talk about anything-but, 1985’s best scenes feature Virginia Madsen as a mother taking her first tentative steps towards accepting her son’s sexuality, admitting during a late-night conversation that she did not vote for Reagan and then later telling him that she’ll try to be ready to listen when he’s ready to talk. Thanks to 1985, I now know I can cry in bed without waking my wife.
Finally, there was What They Had, the debut film from writer-director Elizabeth Chomko. What They Had follows Bridget (Hilary Swank) as she travels cross-country to look in on her aging parents. One (Blythe Danner) is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease; the other (Robert Forster), in a mixture of pride and denial, refuses to admit that his wife is in need of more help than he can offer. Like most dramas about going home, What They Had has its fair share of bittersweet moments, but Chomko’s film draws parallels between Bridget’s unfulfilling marriage and the taxing-but-steadfast love shared between her mother and father. A single line of dialogue broke me in this film: Danner’s character, in a rare lucid moment, explaining why her illness affords her some freedom to not feel too alone in the world. It is a perfect piece of writing, one that takes nothing away from the seriousness of Alzheimer’s — no illness as plot device in this film — but still manages to bestow a moment of grace and dignity on a much-deserving character. It makes me sad just to think of it.
If there’s a common thread between all three titles, it’s the intersection of grief and incomprehension. A young boy straining to understand his mother’s mortality; a young man succumbing to an illness he knows very little about; a 75-year-old woman struggling to pinpoint what’s missing about a room without a loved one. Maybe I’ve reached a point where I have enough lives intertwined with my own that the confusion that comes with loss unlocks the loss itself; maybe it’s just my brain slowly rewiring itself with time. Three movies over the course of six months may not seem like a lot to you, but this represents such uncharted territory for me that it cannot possibly be anything but a fundamental shift in how I process movies. Whether it’s biology or just an uptick in cinematic empathy, it feels like I’ve turned a corner in 2018. Here’s to crying through many more films in 2019.