Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore ★★★½

Scorsese’s sophomore success, unfairly swept away in the street-laced wake of Taxi Driver and beyond but nevertheless fondly recalled, provides a wonderfully layered and vivacious portraiture of a newly widowed woman cast out into the lurching emancipation and mobility of liberated living.

Beginning overbearingly, some might even say unnecessarily, with a "We’re not in Kansas anymore" intro which parodies and collapses a nostalgic little girl dreamland, a titularly referenced Wonderland that Alice will notionally strive to recapture for the rest of the film but naturally shelve for however long among the unexpected pit stops and guttural cries of a more independent form of living than what she has become accustomed to. It's a crimson klaxon preface which sets the stage distastefully, shedding sweet corn complacency for a more direct durian extravaganza.

But the subsequent feature bursts with insight and paraphernalic Southwest pleasures, managing to take what is vital and jaggedly comic from that opening and flooding it with a perceptive humanity. Upon the cruelly necessary pollination of her abrupt departure from stultifying societal stasis into the spectral stuff of dreams and nightmares and the comically enhanced and broadly mythic realities within, it is a dream-spurred but essentially aimless voyage towards wherever she is going and whatever she will be. As the princess hops uncomfortably among suitors both charming and creepy, and towns becoming and seedy, she begins to find her own voice and hold on to some semblance of home.

The expressive stylistic and character expanses are translated powerfully through a rare performer like Ellen Burstyn, who was justly acknowledged with an Oscar. As an ill-equipped single mother finding herself on the road, Burstyn runs the full gamut of human emotions, often all at once. Beyond Alice, we also gain insight into a variety of other complementary slices of life, most particularly her pre-teen son in tow, and a flurry of folks who are often even worse off in one way or another, but often with their own form of dignity in the chaos. Scorsese's ability to conjure up complex, dreamy and terrifyingly realistic human comedies is already apparent here, despite on the surface appearing to be against type, ultimately stamping him as the most essential craftsman of the New Hollywood generation. His sympathetic gaze into various human sufferings demonstrates commendable humanism, an ability to relate beautifully to otherwise pressured people who got the bends.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a winning New Hollywood road trip brimming with vitality. It hitchhikes through the dreams and debris of life and the haphazard rhythms of liberated living, towards a sense of self on one’s own hard-won terms. It also reminds us to consider investing more in the present-minded emotionalism and road journey of our lives, rather than surrendering such verve and spontaneity to the distant horizons of largely uncontrollable pasts and futures which might as well be dreams anyway, even the more pragmatic ones. Alice doesn’t live in Wonderland anymore, let alone anywhere else for very long. Even single mother waitresses living nowhere in particular live open-ended existences, which skip off the moment you attempt to minimise, eulogise or even judge it. Liberation can open up from the outside, but it also must come from within and be learned the hard way, as a state of mind. Even when up a creek without a paddle, there is hope, dignity and choice of action amid the fright and molasses-thick despair. Don’t close off, nor withdraw to defeat, but take charge of your life today and live to the fullest possibility. It’s a simple slogan but ever resonant truth about the scary sensibility of living and self-awareness, we gonna work it out again and again until the end. Humans might feel insignificant to time, but such relativity can easily be flipped, as we live, we breathe, we are, and we are here right now. The now isn't built to last, so enjoy it while you can. A babe left stranded in the woods, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a courageous journey through the plights of everyday people of a particular time and place.

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