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Film Review: “Herself” Features a Strong Lead Performance but Weak Storytelling Abilities

Written by: Hannah Tran | January 7th, 2021

Film poster: “Herself”

Herself (Phyllida Lloyd, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

It can seem difficult to create a balance of both painfully real and emotionally uplifting moments in stories of abuse. In Phyllida Lloyd’s Herself, the latter sometimes feel as if it discredits the former and vice versa. The titular “herself” refers to Sandra, a mother of two girls who has just left her abusive husband. With the help of her community, Sandra decides to build a house while still battling her husband for custody of her children and struggling with the residual trauma from her marriage. But while Herself sometimes feels as if it is taking slightly unimaginative narrative routes, it does succeed in thoughtfully examining the aftermath of abuse and providing an inspirational-enough tale of regrowth to be, for the most part, moving.

This is the type of movie that wouldn’t work if not for a pitch-perfect lead, and Clare Dunne, who both serves as our main character and a co-writer, does not fail to deliver. There is something that feels so specifically personal about her performance. Her Sandra is a strong character who is only made better by her weaknesses. Dunne’s unique presence says so much about who Sandra is and the trauma that she is experiencing without needing to convey it through words.

Clare Dunne in HERSELF. Photo: Pat Redmond. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But while one’s sympathy immediately lies with Sandra and her story, the film’s dramatic arc, itself, occasionally runs into some issues. At a certain point, it feels as if we are further away from Sandra as an audience than we were when we met her. As the community gathers to help her, it feels as if the experience of Sandra forging a positive path for her and her children too often happens offscreen or through montage. More than simply undercutting the work put into rebuilding Sandra’s life, this often feels like a failure to truly provide a full scope of the friendships and safety that Sandra is, in fact, running to. Furthermore, the resolution of her story feels slightly too simple, convenient, frustrating, and non-confrontational to allow a true feeling of resolve.

Beyond the narrative, many of the technical and stylistic decisions unfortunately also feel largely uninspired and uncalculated. The cheap, dreary look and feel often lends itself to a strange tone that feels akin to a certain type of made-for-TV movie that is much more exploitative than this. But although its presentation may be somewhat lackluster and ill-fitting, the story at the heart of Herself, more or less, depicts its heavy subject matter with immense care and understanding, and that is certainly an accomplishment worthy of note. And because of this and the clear amount of respect that it contains for its characters, it, at the very least, succeeds in being an invigorating portrait of persistence and strength in the face of adversity.

l-r: Clare Dunne, Molly McCann and Ian Lloyd Anderson in HERSELF. Photo: Pat Redmond. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Hannah Tran is a film critic and filmmaker from Las Vegas, Nevada. Hannah works as a film screener for the Las Vegas Film Festival and publishes an independent zine focused on highlighing Asian American filmmaking.

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