We are getting more films these days with stories about strong women, and it’s quite inspirational. Herself is courtesy of director Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!) and co-writers Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunne, the latter of whom also stars in the film. We’ve all seen the reports that domestic abuse has increased during the pandemic, so the film is timely, as well as disturbing to watch at times – and also informative, hopeful, and uplifting.
Sandra (Ms. Dunne) lives a dangerous home life in Ireland with her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and their two daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara). The danger isn’t derived from a shady neighborhood or faulty home wiring, but rather the explosive temper of Gary, and his tendency to physically abuse his wife. One particular incident traumatizes the youngest daughter and pushes Sandra to take the kids and escape. What follows is a look at the bureaucratic and legal challenges faced by a woman in this situation, as well as the grit and determination of a mother who believes she and her kids deserve a better life.
State-sponsored housing consists of a motel where Sandra and her daughters are forced to use a back entrance so as not to inconvenience the paying customers. Sandra’s flashbacks and visions of being abused by the father of her children are never absent for long. The mandated drop-offs so dad can spend time with the kids go beyond awkward and are filled with a dread that only a parent can fully understand.
When red tape and policies offer little hope of an improved life, Sandra turns to Google and YouTube, and soon she is recruiting folks to help her build a home on the cheap. One of her part-time jobs leads to a generous offer that kicks things into gear. Sandra is doing a gig cleaning the house of Peggy (Harriet Walker), a retired doctor – just as Sandra’s mother had done. Peggy offers some of her unused lands, and next thing we know, Sandra is urging a local building contractor, Aido (Conleth Hill) to spearhead the effort. He’s initially reluctant to join the cause, but his heart is bigger than his tough-guy exterior leads us to believe.
Lloyd’s film serves up some clichés, and struggles to maintain a balance between a heart-warming story of a tenacious mother and commentary on a system that has no place for those so independent-minded. However, the performance of Ms. Dunne is so strong and creates such an easy bond with viewers, that we find ourselves feeling defensive towards her during her legal and emotional battles, and happiness as her community comes together to build. A couple of twists/surprises prevent the film from ever devolving into heavy melodrama, and there is a clever use of music throughout. An early glimpse of a Lego house is a nice touch. Anyone so determined to dig out of a bad situation and re-boot their life, and the lives of their kids, deserves just what they are after…a better life.
Herself is available in theaters and on Amazon Prime on January 8.