If you have ever been in a writing critique group, you will find something to relate to in this movie. We track six aspiring writers and their struggles to be published. When one of them finally is, will her success tear the group apart?
It’s a little crass, very funny, and poignant.
It’s filmed in the style of a documentary, although the characters are entirely made up. We never see the camera crew or interviewer, just a series of clips of the members of the writing group, sometimes speaking directly to the camera. Because of this, we get to know the characters from multiple angles. We track several meetings of the writing group and how they relate to each other as people and artists. How, for example, would you deal with a group member who used five adverbs in a row in a rather overplayed chapter of erotica? Would you tell her you thought it was garbage? Would you try to be supportive and exaggerate the good things? Would you tell her how you would write it? Why do we as writers form critique groups, and what makes the experience beneficial or poisonous?
Along their journey to publication, there are all kinds of writing inside jokes. For example, rejection letters that are 2 inches square, or waiting in line to meet your favorite author only to have his cell phone ring as you are trying to pour out how much his writing his influenced you, and many others.
Colette, the trophy wife/ex-masseuse/romance writer, is a standout in the direct-to-camera scenes. We see her careful manipulation of her appearance, posture, and environment to present a certain image to the camera. For example, she sets a picture of herself in the background in one shot, with a quote by Ray Bradbury. When the interviewer asks her about it, she pretends to be surprised. “Oh it is me, thanks for noticing.” She reads the quote and mispronounces Bradbury’s name.
In one of my favorite scenes, Colette takes the camera crew on a tour of her luxurious home. “Every writer needs a place of tranquility,” she says, bringing us into the garden. In the background, a construction crew is presumably building even more onto her expensive home.
We hear the beeping of backup signals, the breaking of cement. Colette has to raise her voice to be heard, but she never loses her determined poise. This is her writing Garden of Eden, dang it.
And yet, from time to time Colette seems to open up to the camera, and we see the vulnerability and the desperate need to prove herself.
John K. Butzin, who always refers to himself in the 3rd person and by full name, is another standout. He’s an outspoken war veteran, whose ambition to become famous slowly blinds him to the love and support of his German girlfriend. I don’t know whether to call his story arc a comedy or a tragedy. He’ll do anything to be published first in the group, including self-publishing with a less-than-reputable press. His books come back with the back cover written in Chinese, and a dog on the cover instead of the lion he asked for. The best and worst of him is his drive. He sets up a book signing in a hardware store (which has nothing to do with his subject). Your heart kind of breaks for this arrogant jerk when you see him smile at approaching guests, and then he realizes they just want a lightbulb on the shelf behind him.
Also in the group are William, a slacker who writes to attract chicks, and Colette’s naïve and doting husband, who can think of original ideas but can’t flesh them out.
Our two main characters, and the most likeable, are Henry and Hannah. They are both the “nice ones” in the group, supportive to others and tactful. In other ways they are exact opposites. Henry is a prolific reader, of the academic and literary bent. He works as a carpet cleaner and pizza delivery boy while he tries to write the great novel, yet he’s perpetually stunted by writer’s block. Hannah, on the other hand, seems to write entirely by instinct. A running gag throughout the book is the interviewer asks her for her favorite writer, and she can’t think of one, because she doesn’t read a lot. She struggles to come up with the name “Jane Austen,” and then says with a bright smile, “I hear she’s good. Keep it up, Jane!”
But for Hannah the writing comes first, and she puts in the hours and hours necessary to develop her craft. It’s Hannah who lands the agent, the contract, the movie rights.
Is it fair that the novice among them, the writer who does not read, the one who never went to college, should be the first to get what they all aspire to gain? Each person in the group struggles to come to terms. The struggle, it’s clear, is never about Hannah herself. Repeatedly, we see she doesn’t wish to make waves or cause jealousy, so she downplays her success. It is the insecurities of the others in the group that threaten to tear the group apart.
Henry’s massive crush on Hannah forms not only nice subplot but a good thematic parallel to the struggles of the writing group as a whole. All of them want to be published. Henry wants to win Hannah’s heart. But just because we want something, does that mean we can win it by hard work or force of will? How much should we sacrifice for a dream? Do we somehow “deserve” the things we want most in life because we are nice people? As Hannah asks Henry, “Why isn’t the good thing you have enough?” When if ever should we modify our dreams?
The movie comes to a satisfying but unexpected resolution. Some characters succeed, some fail, some land in-between. But all reach an ending that makes perfect sense for their character arc.
After watching this movie, I found myself asking such questions as, “What motivates me to write? What kind of critique group member am I? Do I thrive off the success of others, or do I let my own jealousies and insecurities poison the well?” I know which kind I want to be. And this self-examination was pretty easy to take, given the humor woven into the movie. A spoonful of sugar, as they say…