An Invisible Sign (2010)

Posted on February 11, 2015

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First, the biweekly apology: I got sick. I’m actually a little anxious about my health as I move into my 50s. I usually don’t get so sick that I need a week off from work, and I’ve had two such illnesses in the last six months. This time it was actually my wife who scared me. She’s had this for weeks, so as soon as we realized that I had the same thing, I went to the doctor. I’ve had some bad reactions to meds before, so I took some time off to adjust to the regimen.

It's an independent movie. They didn't bother to release images that are free to use.

It’s an independent movie. They didn’t bother to release images that are free to use.

Second, the movie!

Mona Gray (Jessica Alba) is the daughter of a mathematician (John Shea). One day, when she’s a little girl, something happens to him and she spends the rest of her childhood trying to find the numbers that will help her dad recover.

When Mona is 20, her mother (Sonia Braga) kicks her out of the house and then gets Mona a job as an elementary school math teacher. Mona has to learn to deal with the kids, and to deal with the school science teacher (Chris Messina), a divorcee with a romantic interest in Mona.

Short Version

A head-scratcher

 

Longer Version

Although I’m tempted to launch right into a rant, let’s start with a baseline framework for analysis. It’s boring, but it’s fair to other movies.

A character has to have, at a minimum, a greatest fear and a greatest desire. That’s necessary for every character because the moment those two things conflict is the climax of the story. Those two things should not be the same. If your character is afraid her dad will die, and desperately wants her dad to live, those are the same thing. You haven’t clearly identified a fear and a desire.

The more visceral those fears and desires are, the more relatable your story is.

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A story is about a character, in a context, with a conflict. The plot of the story comes from how the character tries to resolve the conflict. In traditional, Western, story structure, the character tries to resolve the conflict, fails, learns something, tries again, fails again, learns something else, tries a third time, and succeeds because of the previous lessons learned.

Again, the more visceral the conflict is, the more interested your audience is in your story.

Using that structure, let’s look at Mona Gray. Mona is, unfortunately, a cipher. She claims to love math, but we never actually see her do any. She’s not a mathematician, she’s a numerology aficionado. She loves numbers, and the visuals in the film strongly suggest that she can see the world in terms of mathematical equations, but we never see her use math.

Her father’s illness is completely unclear, and that’s a problem for her. I’ve seen some viewers interpret the event as a stroke, but I’ve learned the signs and the movie doesn’t use them. I’ve seen some viewers suggest he has a heart attack, but again the movie doesn’t use heart attack symptoms.

I suspect what happens is early onset Alzheimer’s, but again the movie isn’t clear. Dad has mental deterioration that seems to plateau while he takes his meds.

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What this means for Mona is that, at an early age, she loses an important relationship in her life. Some people, in similar situations, go around trying to find approval from other men in their lives. I know I did, when I was a boy and my father passed away.

Mona does not. She just mopes around her house. Her mother interprets this, correctly, as Mona trying to find ways to take care of her father. Mona has no life. She rejects everyone who gets near her.

Mona is not likeable. She’s an incomplete character in an unclear context.

Yep. That's shy, introverted, Mona who no one notices is drop-dead gorgeous. Hollywood. What are you gonna do?

Yep. That’s shy, introverted, Mona who no one notices is drop-dead gorgeous. Hollywood. What are you gonna do?

Clearly, when Mom throws Mona out of the house, it’s because Mona needs to grow the fuck up. She’s stuck in a sort of perpetual childhood. It’s hard to grow up, but this story skips steps. How did Mona get stuck? Does it have to do with her Dad still relating to her as if she were a little girl? Why did she drop out of college? Why is she so frightened of contact with other people?

Anybody can be shy or introverted. Sometimes it’s just the way they are, and there’s no point in trying to figure out what influences during their development led them to be that way. However, that’s lazy writing. If your character is exceptional in some way, we have to know why.

Some reviewers call Mona’s mother mean. I think that’s a misreading of the part. Sonia Braga does a wonderful job of conveying her character’s love of her family, and her frustration that Mona won’t have an adult life of her own. Kicking Mona out of the house is an act of tough love, but it’s still love. There’s no cruelty there at all.

Moving on to Mona’s job as an elementary school teacher, it’s bullshit. No teacher gets hired without a background check and a presentation of certifications. Even in states where you don’t need a teacher’s certificate, you have to present a college degree. Yet, based on her mother’s lie, Mona is a teacher.

Why does her school top out at the second grade? Where are the older kids? If you watch the movie, you can understand entirely the focus on her second grade class. Their relationships, and their effect on Mona, is the focus of the movie. It still leaves a question unanswered. If Mona can barely handle second-graders, why doesn’t her sixth-grade class give her a nervous breakdown?

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JK Simmons plays Mona’s elementary school math teacher. The whole point of him being in the movie is to show her that she hasn’t paid attention to how she treats other people, and how that affects her relationships. So why cast JK Simmons? He’s too good an actor for such an underwritten part. There’s no explanation for his character’s mood shifts, or why he signals them by wearing numbers (higher numbers mean better mood). He just kind of wanders in and out of the movie.

Mona decided, as a child, to punish herself. She decided that as long as her dad was sick, she could not enjoy anything. She habitually eats soap after a happy event, to temper her enjoyment. So the big emotional moment is when she decides to let herself love, and doesn’t eat soap.

The problem is that not eating the soap is a sign of an internal change, and nothing more. It is not the change itself. It is not the process by which the character learned and grew. Not eating soap is the victory that should come on the third attempt to resolve the story’s conflict. Except we don’t know what that conflict was.

I wanted to. I wanted to understand the moment when Mona started to love herself the way the kids love her, because once she understands that she’s worthy and deserving of such love, she can accept the advances of the science teacher.

I think that the moment when Mona loses her job is the moment when she suddenly sees herself as an individual, and not as defined by either her desire to care for her father or by the role in which her mother forced her. Through no fault of the cast, that’s something you have to dig to find.

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There’s a scene where Mona talks with her former math teacher and he explains that he stopped wearing his numbers because he realized he didn’t need them to define him anymore (apparently, because he got laid). In retrospect, that seems to reinforce the idea that Mona is free to define herself.

I find that trite and simplistic. Yes, the past is just a mental recording that we replay to ourselves. It’s not real. We don’t have to let it define us. However, it does influence and inform us. For some people (and I try everyday to be less like this), it’s harder to break that loop and leave the past as the past.

For Mona, who is so introverted and undefined as an adult, it should be incredibly hard. Yet the movie just skips the hard parts.

Conclusion

You’re going to read all that and think the cast did a terrible job. They did not. All of them are very good at sharing their characters’ internal lives. The director does a mostly unobtrusive job, but the way the visuals change (after dad gets sick, Mona is no longer in a world populated by equations) is disappointing.

In my opinion, this is an unfocused and underwritten, film. It could have been about how growing up with a mentally disabled parent affects development, but it skips all that. It could have been about how the kids draw Mona out of her shell, but there’s too much other stuff going on. It could have been about how a painfully shy mathematician finds love with an elementary school teacher, but that comes too late in the film.

It’s a sweet film, but I can’t recommend it.

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Posted in: Movies