Sugar and honey
Sentimentality is a tricky business. If you layer it on too thickly, a film becomes unwatchable, like chocolate cake submerged in a thick pool of pure corn syrup. However, unlike some cynics who reject sentimentality outright, I think it can be an elevating aspect to a film when it’s done right.
I recently watched Danny Boyle’s 2004 film “Millions”. A side plot about a mean ole’ bank robber (who’s nasty in the context of a family film, and never at any point actually threatens the film’s child protagonists) is as dark as the film gets. For the most part, it’s about a wide-eyed 7-year-old who finds a large sum of money and tries to figure out how best to do good with it, all the while holding long conversations with various saints. It’s that kind of movie, and it needs to be that kind of movie to work. Boyle doesn’t half-ass this material. If we got the sense for one moment that he thought he was above this material, it’d lose all its credibility. The film seems less sentimental than it is because we’re used to sentimentality being arbitrarily smeared on.
Frank Capra is widely viewed as the king of sentimental films. What’s forgotten about him, however, is that his films usually take a very dark route to their happy endings. Take the definitive Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. If it weren’t for that legendary finale, you’d never know it’s considered the ultimate sappy movie. Themes like suicide, depression, and frustration with one’s self-worth just weren’t commonly dealt with in 1940’s films. Yes, the movie takes a sentimental turn at the end. But make no mistake, Capra earns it. The ending isn’t syrupy, but an explosion of joy. Credit, of course, must also go to Jimmy Stewart. He and Capra clearly believe in this material. If not the literal content, than the feelings it evokes. It’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking.