Meet Me in St. Louis ★★★★

Hollywood bullshit Americana rendered and commandeered for the good of the world by MGM's Freed unit: depicting an impossible universe -- 1903 St. Louis in which a privileged family experiences a year's worth of comings and goings in the run-up to the two eldest daughters being engaged -- without cynicism, but also with a real and surprising sense of who these people are. The kids have dark senses of humor, the dad has a temper and a self-righteous streak but tries to keep it under control, and Mom gets exasperated with holding back her own talents but hangs in there and periodically belts one out at the piano. The songs tend toward the exquisite, and the minimalist choreography amazingly allows this film without a coherent narrative line to smoothly advance from one season to the next. By the time winter rolls around, its genuine yearning and grasping for what feels like a truly felt memory of an inevitably temporary condition can choke you up even if your own childhood was comparatively dysfunctional -- whether you're lamenting how much you (or your entire class, or your entire race, or your entire generation) never had this kind of unquestioned security or whether you're lamenting bygone people for whom you cared and who cared for you, the movie seems to be there with you, peaking with Judy Garland's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which doesn't even pretend to Sinatra's later forced jolliness that was hard enough to trust on his recording. Then the kid (Margaret O'Brien) goes full Calvin on some snowmen and it's like, man, I don't care, these are my people, and I believe in a world in which this attachment to day-to-day life and the attendant resistance to whatever variety of change is being protested are possible: to want nothing more than to believe in now, not kick dreams off into the future and not reach vainly for the past. (In a strange way, the film rejects nostalgia, or at least fails to promote it so much as to wonder why we are forced to revel in it; as others have pointed out, the encroaching darkness in various scenes feels like a rebuke of the way war turns children into adults, adults into monsters -- making the Smiths a turn-of-the-century brood with few financial troubles is just a handy way to escape the dire conditions attendant to what was then modern life, something to which those of us who came of age in synchronicity with the election of Bush, 9/11, the war in Iraq and every horrendous development since can obviously relate.)

Disappointingly, in its final moments the film inexplicably turns into a travel video for St. Louis, the actual city which up to now had just been an abstract stand-in for just "home," New York for the conversely distant grown-up obligations, and suddenly becomes deadening in its specificity with the opening of the Exposition. The final turnaround takes some of the wind out of the film's allure and bittersweetness, in addition to being all too pat and abrupt, with characters suddenly talking like they're in a commercial. Maybe it's all a dream -- which says a considerable amount about the rest of the film, so suffused with sugar and artificial beauty but so much more human and kind than this finale, not to mention a good deal of what we're forced to encounter in the real world, whether that's our own "St. Louis" or our own "New York."

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