Reviewing Reviews: “October Baby”

This weekend I finally watched “October Baby,” and I thought it was a great movie. Apparently it met with mixed reviews. (IMDB, for example, gives it only 5 out of 10 stars.) Since it was rated this low, I was surprised that I enjoyed it, because I’m normally pretty picky about movies. (However, any contemporary movie that keeps my attention but is clean enough that I can enjoy it with my mom gets a lot of stars from me.)

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To balance my bias, sometimes I like to check out Amazon reviews. Contrasting the 5 star reviews with the 1 star reviews is really revealing, and it is a great way to “read” critically. Concerning “October Baby”  though, I would like to comment on several of the points of the 1 star reviews.

1) Is the “abortion survivor” premise accurate?
One review comments on how this movie is inaccurate because there is no possible way that fetuses could survive modern abortions. The reviewer cites that this movie is based on an occurrence from the 1970s when abortion procedures were less thorough, and that this fact alone makes circumstance of the movie highly inaccurate.
I, however, found out on the IMDB website that while the movie is “inspired” by the life story of a 70s abortion survivor Gianna Jessen, the survived abortion itself is based on an actual case from 1991 in New York City. Apparently, a doctor removed the arm of a fetus, sent the mother home, told her to return the next day to finish, but the woman went into labor the next day.
My own biased opinion: even if the 1991 survival case (and hundreds more since then) had not occurred, it does not preclude filmmakers from taking past occurrences and situating them in current events. The opposite of this (current events set in past history) happens all the time in cinema and modern storytelling. For example, we all watched “The Help,” and no one complained about Kathryn Stockett setting her personal experiences from the 1980s in a different time period (the socially tense 1960s). The issues themselves (unfortunately) do not change; they are, in a sense, timeless.

2) Is the movie too sentimental?
Many reviewers complained that the movie was too sentimental. I agree that sentimentality was used extensively—through facial close-ups and “the falling tear”. (This rhetorical appeal of “pathos” is used to promote an emotional response.)  However, I would argue that the movie uses a variety of appeals, including “logos” and “ethos”.
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One of the most significant scenes is when Hannah visits her birth mother’s (Cindy Hastings) office. When the “aborted child” invades the professional office space, the juxtaposition is highly revealing. As readers, we begin to embrace “logos,” or reason and logic. We ask: “Cindy Hastings has a successful, professional career, but what is the cost?” The cost is a “dead” teenager. We as an audience begin to reason and to think logically about the importance of professional goals and what costs or “sacrifices” we are prepared to make to accomplish those goals. (Granted, we are guided toward the moral question of whether or not it is appropriate to kill one’s offspring in order to reach one’s professional goals.) The movie also utilizes the rhetorical appeal of “ethos”; actress Shari Rigby’s testimony at the end of the movie functions as an authoritative voice. For those who are worried that the “abortion movie” might be condemnatory for our sisters who have found themselves in these situations, Rigby, the real human, functions as an authority in this case because in real life, she herself had an abortion while working in a law firm (not unlike the character she plays). Rigby, as one authority on the subject, deemed this story (of loss and forgiveness) worth telling, and that counts for something. “October Baby,” then, utilizes multiple appeals.
Shari Rigby as Cindy in ``October Baby.''

3) Are the characters realistic?
Many 1 star reviews complained that the characters were one dimensional and the dialogue was terrible. The reviewers wrote that they could not imagine these kind of characters. In this case, I think we would do well to remember WHO this movie is about (and who the filmmakers themselves are): white middle-class Christians. Hear me out. I would like to submit that we need to think about the cultures of the characters and the story-telling group. Whether or not you’ve had a lot of interaction with this group of people, white middle-class Christian families exist. Some reviewers complained that these scenarios are not ones in which the abortion issues typically fall. Even if this is the case, like I said earlier, it does not preclude filmmakers from telling a story from their own perspective: that of a loving, close-knit nuclear family. Just because the story is not a gritty, inner-city tale, featuring broken families, does not mean that the characters are not realistic. They are simply a realism that everyone might not have experienced. We always hear the statistics that “over half of American homes today do not have two-parent homes.” This means, however, that for almost half of the population, two-parent nuclear homes DO exist. “October Baby” is a story told by the “other half.” If this is not your experience, do not simply ignore it as “unrealistic.” We NFP’s (nuclear family peoples) have sat through PLENTY of your divorced, separated, single parent movies. Why is it necessary for you to condemn our own stories?

I also submit that the accusation of “one-dimensionality” results from a cultural disconnect. In solid, nuclear family relationships, there is a give-and-take (and, truly, it is Love) that might seem otherworldly to people who have not experienced these relationships. For example, when Hannah obeys her dad and gets in the car in Mobile, I can imagine that those from other cultural backgrounds might react: “What is she doing?! What is her problem! Why is she taking orders from him? She should get out of that car right now and CUSS HIM OUT.” Yet there is an unspoken cultural understanding of NFP’s that this is how relationships work. Hannah has experienced love and leadership from her Dad, and she trusts him. In a Christian context, she also has a responsibility to moral “ways of being.” (Though they are never expressed verbally, we see this, fleetingly, in the moments of tension and intense conflict that regularly cross actress Rachel Hendrix’s face.) What seems one-dimensional is actually highly complex (though maybe unspoken).

(My only contention with the “realism” of the movie is that I think that sentimentality was taken too far when it was sloppily inserted into the plot. I struggled with the scenes involving the policemen. Little sob stories like Hannah’s [in real life] may or may not elicit that kind of mercy from modern-day law enforcement officials. But, those were the only scenes that I thought seemed truly “unrealistic.”)

My own biased opinion: The relationships in this movie are depictions of NFP reality. To me, it is refreshing that the filmmakers refuse to succumb to Hollywood clichés (read: SEX EVERYWHERE). How interesting that the guy gets the girl, and THEY DON’T KISS. In this movie, we get: delayed gratification, a gentleman, and submission to authority (on multiple fronts!): Hannah to her dad, Jason to Hannah’s dad, and Dad to God. It’s triangle that we rarely see on camera.
Jason Burkey as Jason and Rachel Hendrix as Hannah in ``October Baby.''

This pretty much sums up a few thoughts I had after reading the Amazon 1-star reviews.

Have you seen “October Baby”? How many stars (out of 5) would you give it?