One of the best things about the quaint, slow-moving, sweet little movie “The Chaperone” is that it strongly conveys how difficult it must have been for vivacious, talented, headstrong individuals to remain in small American cities and towns (like Wichita, Kansas) back in the 1920s.
Sleepy backwaters, farm communities, and anyplace USA, where people get married straight out of high school, go into the family business, and start making babies immediately—who can live within those confines? Plenty of folks. Most folks. It’s the life of simpler pleasures.
But these are the classic settings where Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey usually begins. What’s a Hero’s Journey? The ancient Greeks saw human life as being lived in two different possible forms: You either live your entire life inside the village compound, or you go out on a Hero’s Journey.
The latter begins when you go outside the village compound to fetch some water at the well, hear the call of a strange bird—the call to adventure—drop everything, enter the dark and dangerous forest, fall off a precipice, discover a cave, find gold, and then bring your gold back to the village compound. It’s about finding one’s bliss, as Campbell said in an interview with Bill Moyers. It usually means the ability to have the joy of using that thing that one is supremely talented at—as a livelihood.
In modern terms, those with outsized talents and ambitions who heed the call to adventure, like Pinocchio, usually set out on their Hero’s Journey, leaving a small town for one of the big cities. Where they start growing donkey ears.
Wait, what? Yeah, what was the deal with the donkey ears? They represent being confronted with big-city temptation to revel in the baser pleasures, depicting a potential moral downslide. As the ancient Buddhists would interpret it, growing donkey ears represents entering the danger zone of losing moral status to the point where one incarnates as an animal in the next lifetime. But things don’t usually get that dramatic.
The other thing “The Chaperone” reminds one of is the America before abortion was the norm, when out-of-wedlock fooling around resulted in many orphans. And when orphans were put on trains that stopped in small towns all across the land and were taken in by families.
And so “The Chaperone” tells the tale of Mrs. Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), herself a former orphan, chaperoning the headstrong, 16-year-old Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson, currently starring in the teen love story “Five Feet Apart”) from Wichita to New York City, so the girl can pursue her dancing Hero’s Journey. And avoid producing any orphans.
The film’s based on the more-or-less truthful novel, by Laura Moriarty, about the early career of Jazz Age sensation Louise Brooks, who went on to become a silent-film star. In the film, Louise has been accepted into a prestigious New York modern dance school, but her father insists on adult supervision in the big city.
We assume that since Norma’s twin sons are now grown, she jumps on the escort job just to get the heck out of Dodge for a bit. However, Norma’s marriage contains a secret tragedy, and it so happens that New York is where the nun-administered orphanage where Norma lived as a child is located. Norma would like to learn of her roots.
Norma and Louise begin a feisty, mother-daughter, older/younger-sister, teacher-student relationship, where each dynamic swings both ways, due to Norma’s age and experience versus Louise’s charismatic, self-assured, wise-beyond-her-years personality.
And so Norma leads a double life in New York for a time. On the one hand, she’s walking around with a figurative shepherd’s crook, yanking young Louise from batting eyelashes at smitten waiters for free ice creams and helping her purge overconsumption of speakeasy gin; on the other, she’s tracking down her own mother (played by Blythe Danner).
As for the latter mission, the orphanage’s mother superior turns Norma down flat regarding giving out information on relatives. However, Norma strikes up a friendship with the orphanage’s widowed and exceedingly helpful janitor, Joseph (Geza Rohrig, currently also starring in “To Dust”).
And as for finding her mother, when Norma does, she’s tragically dashed of the long-held sacred memories and hopes of her childhood self. She’s forced to confront the reality that here is a person who never wanted her, only came for a quick look out of mild curiosity, and ultimately doesn’t want to know her or her grandsons. You’ll wonder why Elizabeth McGovern doesn’t work more.
Tradition or Progress?
“The Chaperone” takes a mild look at various issues America was dealing with at the time: orphans and why young people ought not to be left unsupervised, the possible lethal repercussions of exposed homosexuality, prohibition, race relations, the Ku Klux Klan, white America’s fear of black people, and women’s suffrage.
Norma’s character arc resides, basically, in the metaphor of her corset. Her dedication to daily corset-wearing demonstrates to us the origin of the term “tight-laced.” She loosens up eventually, literally and figuratively.
But while Louise’s effect on her matronly chaperone could be seen as Norma’s embracing the mantra of the Al-Anon 12-step group: “Put yourself first,” Norma’s effect on Louise is more like that of a guardian angel. Norma circles back years later, after Hollywood has evicted Louise and she’s down and out and back in Wichita. Norma actually facilitates Louise’s second Hero’s Journey out of Wichita. That kind of long-term karmic connection is a rare thing.
But as mentioned, the film is snail’s paced, a bit fusty, and the outdated social mores and moral values will rankle. And yet … it does give one pause. Which is what good art ought to do. Have our largely unraveled social mores and cast-aside moral restrictions of the church led to a better America? Was life better when chaperoning was a thing? Is it better now? Are fifty bazillion abortions better than fifty thousand orphans?
If you go and relax your twanging synapses (after viewing any “Avenger” movie) and breathe and slow your pace down, “The Chaperone” is actually rather enjoyable. And it will give you much to ponder afterward.
Director: Michael Engler
Starring: Haley Lu Richardson, Miranda Otto, Elizabeth McGovern, Blythe Danner, Campbell Scott, Geza Rohrig
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Release Date: March 29
Rated: 3 stars out of 5