Unlike critics (but apparently very much like Google users), I loved The Age of Adaline.
It is a modern-day romantic drama with a dash of fantastical realism, old-fashioned sensibilities, mid-century accents, gorgeous flashbacks, a haunting score and delightful, vintage clothes. Also, Michael Huisman. I consider this movie a guilty pleasure, but I’m light on the guilt part because the aforementioned ingredients are not what keep me coming back to a movie that, at face value, has none. The Age of Adaline never pretends to be something it isn’t and what it is, is subtly meaningful.
In the story, a violent car accident on a winding, Sonoma County road–made all the more mysterious by a rare snow fall–leaves 29-year-old Adaline Bowman, a mother and a widow, unable to age, due to an undiscovered scientific law and a heart-fibrillating bolt of lightning. Adaline becomes a superhero, just not the kind we’ve come to expect, which makes the whole movie wonderfully subversive. She wears feminine outfits, lives a simple existence, loves a select few souls, succeeds in being ignored by the world, and spends 60 years changing her name, to avoid becoming a science experiment.
The year is now 2015. Her daughter, Flemming, is old enough to look like her grandmother. Every dog she’s ever had has died, and the one she currently owns is dying, too. Her closest friend is a blind pianist, who knows her as Amanda and who can’t understand why young men approach them when they are together. This brings me to my first reason for adoring this movie.
Adaline knows there is no cure for her. She knows that everyone she loves will eventually die and leave her behind; in that sense, the movie captures the negative side of eternal life almost as well as Tuck Everlasting. I still get The Feeling In My Stomach, when I remember Tuck explaining eternal life as being like “rocks stuck on the side of the stream.” I will never forget the scene where Jesse finds Winnie’s grave and smiles softly to himself. Some moments boil everything of importance down into a teaspoon.
Adaline chooses to love, even though she knows people have an expiration date.
It’s the same for all of us. There is nothing more risky than loving a perishable being, which all humans are. We die, pets die, memories fade, relationships change. Will we pull away to avoid pain? Or will we lean in to truly live? It’s a choice.
When her dog does pass away in the movie, Adaline places his picture in a photo album, alongside dozens of black and white, sepia and 1970’s colored photos of her past dogs. Teary eyed, she looks at all she’s lost and, as a viewer, you wonder, “How much pain can one body take?” Adaline has lived through the deaths of her grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, husband, pets and the world as she knew it over and over again. Now, she is on the cusp of outliving her daughter. The despair is palpable.
But from that comes a great lesson in grieving. She has a process for putting her loved ones to rest. She lets herself weep and feel all the sadness she wants to feel, without cutting it short or pretending not to care. In a world of superheroes and vampire TV shows, where getting over internal suffering is designated as a hallmark of the real-world, her choice to grieve is both fragile and powerful.
In the movie’s present-day, Adaline is doing what she loves–working in historical, primary source preservation at the San Francisco public library. She learns braille, showing her commitment to understanding how other people see the world (her blind pianist friend). She has a sense of humor. She’s not perfect: She can be petty, snooty and aloof, but she knows what she knows. She’s doing her best.
You may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned romance. That’s because it isn’t the center of Adaline’s existence, and rightly so. By the time she meets her modern-day love interest, she is 107 years old. For him to become the sun she orbits would be ridiculous and degrading, both to her character and the story. She resists engaging in a relationship with him because she knows he will end up in the trunk of memories. With that outlook, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling free enough to fall in love. But when she does finally decide to be with Ellis, she’s not just choosing Ellis.
Even if nothing gets better, even if she never fixes her condition, even if everyone she loves keeps dying, will she still love? Will she still live? Or will she become bitter and resentful? There are no quick-fixes, no eleventh hour saves here. Speaking realistically, suicide would be an obvious choice after her daughter’s death but, by deciding to enter a relationship, Adaline is fighting back. She is saying, “I am going to live.”
She’s choosing who she wants to be.
It is easy to disregard the idea that a movie like this has any value beyond a girls’ night or an evening alone. It is easy to think that a character whose monster is eternal life, only serves to glorify that monster–everyone wants to stay young, after all. Because she wears lovely clothes, has flawless mannerisms, doesn’t fit our idea of a powerful woman, and has a very small, tight knit world, we pooh-pooh the notion that Adaline is a superhero of any kind. But if a woman like that can’t save the day, can any of us?
Adaline is not a genius. She doesn’t fly. She cannot save the world. I can relate.
Adaline is gentle, quiet and strong, in an overlooked way. She rejects bitterness and reaches out to others. She loves, even when it hurts.
And, that is my kind of superhero.
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.