I saw myself in Brooklyn. Not my own story. I am not Irish. I am not a young woman, nor was I alive in 1952. I doubt I would ever be played by Saoirse Ronan. The events in Brooklyn don’t much reflect my own life. But watching the film I felt the warm familiarity of stories told to me by my mother. She was not officially an immigrant (she was born in Georgia to an American father and a Filipina mother and grew up in the Philippines) but her stories were often filled with the same feelings of loneliness and discovery that are at the heart of Brooklyn. Thirty-nine years ago, she was in Montreal with the University of the Philippines classical chorus as they went on a world tour. Their bus had a minor accident. Everyone got off. Seizing the opportunity for a totally new life, she never got back on. I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done that. If I have any children, they will owe their existence to that decision. At some point in the bloodlines of most of the people who live in this country, someone came here from somewhere else. Brooklyn is a pure and lovely story of a young woman making that decision. In its specificity, its details, and in a magnificent performance by Saoirse Ronan, it finds depth and truth. Like the films of Ozu, it holds a mirror to our souls.
Watching Brooklyn I was surprised at how easily it washed over me. Not a scene feels unnecessary or wasted. The story fits together more like colors in a painting than pieces of a puzzle. Its story is crisp and clear. Its beats hum below the surface, constantly giving Eilis (Ronan), a young immigrant to New York City, something to react to. There’s a musical quality to the storytelling. On her trip across the sea, Eilis seems hopeless, suffering from food poisoning and clashing with her next door neighbors. A kindly older passenger takes her under wing. Later in the film, Eilis takes the same role for an even younger immigrant. The way the film returns to previous beats to show how Eilis has grown and changed reminded me of how musicals use motifs and refrains to signal similar changes. Director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby almost never use Big Scenes to show Eilis’s transition from a lost, homesick girl to a confident woman. There is one notable exception, near the end of the film. You’ll know it when you see it, but it’s more than earned. For the most part, the film plays out almost like a series of diary entries. Scene by scene, we see Eilis grow into her new life. Her transition from desperate sadness (lord, does Saoirse Ronan spill a lot of tears in this film) to quiet comfort more gradient than episodic.
The biggest change to Eilis’s life comes when she falls in love with a kindly Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen). Even here the movie defies expectations gently. We wait for the typical ups and downs of a movie romance, the part where they have one big fight so they can fall out of love so they can fall back in at the end. Instead we get two people who fall in love and spend their time figuring out just how much. Movies rarely see past the first proclamation of love, or the first day of a wedding. I was surprised at how Brooklyn ended up testing the relationship between Eilis and Tony, and how much, without ever diving into the sort of arbitrary bitterness that typically defines movie romance.
Near the final act of the film, Eilis returns to Ireland. I won’t say why, or for how long. But it’s the most narratively confident passage of the film. How Eilis has changed, and how she reacts to being back home, could easily have devolved into a series of trite comparisons, the sort of “Town Mouse/Country Mouse” model we might have expected. Instead we get to see her fit back in as best she can, and see if it’s a better fit than what she has back in Brooklyn. The discoveries she makes, and the revelations she has for her loved ones at home, are quite powerful. By the end, the story has earned a sentimental ending. But its final notes are far more bittersweet. Much like life, peaks of happiness emerge from great uncertainty.
At the end of the film, I thought of my mom’s journey, and the stories she told me. How she was widowed before she met my dad. How I nearly died when I was born. How she and my dad raised six kids. How often I saw her crying from homesickness in the 30-plus years between her not getting on the bus, and finally visiting the Philippines again a few years ago. And how she has always told me she has no regrets. I saw myself in Brooklyn, because the story it tells relates back to us all at some point. In my case, I heard those stories myself, from my mother, telling me about her own journey. Not everyone hears those stories growing up, but go back long enough and they happened. Brooklyn is a beautiful reminder that this country was built by people dreaming of happiness.