It was a hot summers day – during my school holidays – when it happened. That kind of day when I experienced a kind of abysmal soul-despondence, the very kind which afflicted one of Dostoesvsky’s Russian peasants, who, after putting in a heavy day’s effort strangling his brother, thrashing his wife, shooting his horse and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty. The power had been out for over a week and one of my favorite past times of watching movies had abruptly been halted indefinitely. That was the day I realized my deep passion for films.
Loner characters have never predominated in feature films. But interestingly, when loners do appear in a movie, they tend to become cult figures that the crowds fall in love with or feel they can identify themselves with. I believe this is because most people can relate to that sense of solitude, feeling misunderstood, awkward and alone at some point in their life.
It’s difficult to represent a loner character however; we aren’t charismatic and don’t have a large group of friends to enter these love or hate triangle dramas. We don’t have adolescent friends that dare us to see who can get the most girls because the movie would basically unfold as follows: “Dude I bet I can get 50 times more girls than you do!” – “50 x 0 is still 0 right?” We aren’t the hero that saves the world, because due to seclusion, we didn’t know it was in peril to begin with, and have no arsenal of weapons at our disposal – a loner child probably invented the boomerang. The biggest adventures we embark on is walking through the intensive care unit, dressed as the grim reaper when we’re feeling cheeky.
The spectrum of loner roles is varied and plenty; from the diabolical sociopaths, the quirky mentally disabled, the misunderstood genius, the lovable and endearing, the sensitive shy romantic misfit or the superhero and fearless outcast…we’ve been embodied in all kinds of ways.
Inspiringly Shamefully, my RottenTomatoes account claims I’ve watched almost 1500 movies in my lifetime; in this private vice I’ve come across many films that I found touched the loner spirit in different dimensions.
This will be the first of many posts that will explore some loner movies of all types and from all countries. Let us begin.
1) Amélie (2001)
My opinion of Amelie is highly biased, let me get that out of the way from the beginning. It’s my favorite movie from the age of thirteen when I first watched it, perhaps cause I was in Spain at the time and it captures perfectly the European culture. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a master of visually stunning movies laden with rich details in thick atmosphere, with strange characters. Amelie Poulain (brilliantly played by Audrey Totou) a young French girl in Paris has a decidedly atypical childhood isolated from other children due to a misdiagnosed heart condition; spending most of her time in her room, where she develops a keen imagination and an active fantasy life to ward away the feelings of loneliness leaving her a painfully shy and socially anxious adult. Whimsically romantic, after failed attempts to connect with other people, she finds pleasures in lifes simple quirky things. One day after realizing the fragility of life, she embarks on an altruistic quest to bring happiness into the lives of others through arms-length manipulations, executing complex but hidden schemes that impact the lives of those around her and in doing so helps improve her own. The diverse eccentric characters is one of the most entertaining attractions of this movie, from the reclusive old painter neighbor she befriends with a physical anomaly, the hypochondriac co-worker and an obsessive customer who she plays matchmaker with, the emotionally detached father she tries to encourage to get out there a bit more with the assistance of a traveling garden gnome, the photobooth discarded-photo collector/sex store worker she falls in love with, to a slightly mentally slow grocery worker abused by his boss (who she later makes the victim in one of her guardian angel mastermind ploys). The narrator introduces you into the movie superbly like the beginning of a fairy tale story and the soundtrack is an absolutely terrific dreamy piece composed by Yann Tiersen. This movie is ideal for the eternal dreamers who never quite outgrew their childhood imagination of wonder – you can’t help but fall in love with Amelie. She’ll make you think, laugh and feel, as the films tagline reads: “She’ll change your life.”
2) Ben X (2007)
Ben is a Belgian teenager who suffers from Asperger syndrome, a form of Autism. Inspired by a true life story of a boy with autism who commits suicide after being bullied at school, the movie focuses on Ben escaping his harsh reality by turning to the virtual world and becoming addicted to a role playing game called ArchLord – with whom he identifies and develops his high level strength, adventurous and powerful persona, BenX. Finding it hard to get a grip on reality, Ben tries to go through his day to day unnoticed waiting for the moment he can log on and lose himself in the game till one day he’s taken to his limits when bullies force him to strip in front of his classmates and record it to put on the internet. Ben feeling humiliated and distraught with life, devises a plan that will show everyone what he is truly made of. Prepared to leave life and his virtual identity behind, Ben lets one of his online adventure collaborates know, Scarlite, that hes’s planning to “endgame” in reality. Concerned, Scarlite decides to meet him in real life, they develop an intimate relationship forcing this vengeful gamer to find himself in a critical crossroad. The movie is powerful in portraying bullying and mental illness, the ending might leave you captivated as it did with me.
3) Harold and Maude (1971)
Perhaps a bit dated to some, this film is immortal to me. The movie follows the life of Harold, a teenager obsessed with mortality and death born into a snobbish rich family who he feels little connection with. To get the attention of his mother and frighten away all the prospective brides she brings home for him to meet, he repeatedly fakes his own suicide which has landed him in regular visits to a therapist. Driving a mini-hearse, he spends his free time spectating the demolitions of buildings, exploring junkyards and frequenting funerals of strangers. In one of these funerals he meets Maude, an anarchistic 79 year old who shares his interest in funeral attendance, though with an entirely different outlook on life, eccentric to the core and bright, he becomes captivated by her contrast compared with his own morbid nature. She teaches him the beauties of art and music, of carefree living, and to create ones own meaning in life by ‘making the most of this time on earth‘. This relation leads to an unusual romance, which changes Harold’s perspective of life entirely. An existential dark/quirky comedy, this movie is an invitation to look at life through a new perspective.
4) Let The Right One In (2008)
Dark, romantic and haunting, this movie is sure to stay with you. Oskar, a meek loner boy in Sweden grows up in a complex of apartments. Bullied at school, he spends his evenings imagining revenge on all those that hurt him – as well as playing with his Rubik’s Cube. Eli, a young beautiful but peculiar girl his age moves in with her father Håkan into his block of apartments; they soon befriend each other over the Rubiks Cube and the two exchange messages through their adjoining walls using morse code. After discovering Oskar’s problems, Eli advises him to stand up for himself and fight back against his bullies. Slowly a romance develops between Oskar and Eli as he learns about her secret and what she must do to stay alive – but still, Oskar’s discovery doesn’t deter his increasing feelings and confused emotions about Eli. In the meantime, Oskar continue to battle his demons at school as well, as well as the prospect of Eli leaving to escape the unwanted attention she’s gaining from the police, who herself is feeling torn by the need to stay and protect him. The atmosphere in this movie is truly eery while the romance between the two pre-teens is captivating in a twisted, sweet way. Not to be confused with the 2010 American remake “Let Me In” which also deserves its own credit.
5) Mary and Max (2009)
This movie is the only non live-action film on the list, but even clay-animated, it still has more heart than most films I’ve seen to date. The story begins as an accidental and innocent pen-pal friendship between the unlikeliest of couples. Mary is an eight year old girl from Australia with an alcoholic mum and standard father – she also has a birthmark on her face that she dislikes and plans to remove someday. One day, through serendipity, Mary befriends Max, a morbidly obese, obsessive compulsive, middle-aged Jewish New Yorker suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome and anxiety attacks. From mental asylum visits, lottery wins to a wedding, they share with each other every detail of their lives, through the 20 year correspondence between the perspective of this young innocent girls spectacles, and the eyes of a misanthrope emotionally oblivious strange man. Throughout the movie they hilariously discuss an assortment of subjects; autism, taxidermy, alcoholism, where babies come from, kleptomania, chocolate, cigarette littering, happiness, love, trust, copulating dogs, religious differences, agoraphobia and many other of life’s wonders that will make you empathize with them and keep you engaged with laughter and sadness from beginning till end.
I’ve chosen a film from each country to keep this list slightly varied, though certain themes do seem to repeat themselves. These articles are in no way reviews of the above mentioned films, instead, they’re cursory overviews of the basic premise without revealing too much, to give you an idea of what to expect. If you have loner movies you’d like to suggest for future articles please leave them in the comments.