When Marnie Was There

CW: indirect abuse reference

It's so easy to feel like you don't have a family. One small thing, one small moment, can rupture bonds that we're told hold tighter and stronger than any other. Family is so fragile, because the promise inherent in every story told about families is so profound. Anything can shatter that impossible illusion. It can be the perception that your mother is being paid to have you, or it can be the way your father yelled that one time, or it can be... worse things. For queer or trans kids, of course, all other things being equal, family tends to be even more fragile than for straight and cisgender kids. Surrounded by images that tell us how we don't fit in, we internalize our outsider status (and maybe insult someone trying to be our friend--rejecting bonds before they form out of fear of the inevitable--when they try to point out how we're different). Certainties other kids take for granted (like the fact that mom and dad love them) are rendered uncertain for queer and trans kids as soon as we understand that we're different (not even how, just that).

Anna is queer and/or trans, is what I'm saying. Undeniably. Whether she is actually intended to be in love with a girl or not is irrelevant. Her experiences are queer/trans experiences. We will see ourselves in her self, and in her journey. She doesn't fit in with the other kids, but the reason at first seems invisible. When she finds someone she does fit in with, she connects more powerfully because the experience is almost unfamiliar, and because she finds a familiar presence in Marnie. So. That ending is not what it seems--or at least not just what it seems. Rediscovering our pasts, our histories, is crucial to understanding ourselves. This doesn't necessarily mean blood family or repressed memories or ghosts of our nation's past, but the stories of those Like Us. The trans and/or queer women who existed within familiar frameworks guide us. Marnie represents this as much as any literal interpretation.

Which is good, because without that understanding, the ending of the film can be very confusing to someone who just identified pretty hard with these two girls who are obviously in love. For anyone watching this and feeling upset by that ending, hold onto this: this film is as much about queer/trans erasure as it is about family. It's also about race; note that eye color and blonde hair play a role here in this tale set in Japan. I do not have insights into the racial politics of Japan to really parse it comfortably, so I will refrain from trying at this time.

Backgrounds feel like water colors sometimes, feel like paintings come to life. There's just enough unusual in the features; the rising tides turning solid land into wet islands is both real and fantastical, evoking isolated places. The silo is as much a feature of rural life as it is a tower of doom and terror. The mansion is a palace and a ghost house and a simple renovation. All pieces of this tale are slightly off-kilter, and everything is drawn, painted, sketched, colored with Ghibli brightness. Green dominates the film (and blue, so much water), but that only makes the flashes of color (Marnie's hair and dresses, especially) stand out against. It makes you want to see yourself in it, to know a world that beautiful.

Sally Jane liked these reviews