Watching a John Sayles film is like reading a very good novel. His films contain rich and complex characters with involving background stories. They are set in places you normally don’t see in movies (they are actually shot there as well, which is another Hollywood rarity) and the places become just as much a part of the film as the characters and plot themselves. Passion Fish is an independent film that, unfortunately, you don’t see much of these days in Hollywood. It does not rely on movie stars or a dramatic plot with crazy twists for its success. It relies instead on wonderful characters and a intricate narrative tapestry.

Passion Fish is about a daytime soap opera actress (Mary McDonnell – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress) who is left paralyzed after a car accident. With her career now over, she moves to her childhood home in rural Louisiana and hires a nurse (Alfre Woodard) to take care of her. However, her difficult personality strains her relationship with the nurse as they learn to deal with each other.

If your only familiarity with Mary McDonnell is with her character in Battlestar Galactica, then you are doing yourself quite a disservice. In the early 90s, McDonnell caught filmgoers’ attention (and the Academy’s) with her performance in Dances With Wolves. Soon thereafter, she began appearing in big films like Sneakers and Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, McDonnell was unable to maintain her rising star status and we didn’t see much of her outside of television. I have always enjoyed watching her perform and although she is a complete bitch in Passion Fish, her dry humor and developing warmth endears you to her character. McDonnell has always possessed a wise look that makes her appear like she’s on to you and you see much of that here as well. This film beautifully showcases her talents as an actress and she was well-deserving of her nomination.

Passion Fish is not complete without Alfre Woodard’s nurse character. The film’s success depends as much on the nurse’s shady history as it does on the relationship between she and the paraplegic actress. Woodard is also great in her role and just as deserving of an Oscar nomination (if not more so in fact). She does not have much to say and she does not need to as her expression says enough in many of the scenes. Woodard is another actress who I wish we would see more of on the big screen.

As with any Sayles film, Passion Fish contains many supporting characters whose lives intersect with the main characters. David Straithairn, a common staple of John Sayles films, is a Cajun white trash family man who McDonnell has a crush on. Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Sugar, another Cajun who takes a liking to Woodard’s character. Finally, we are briefly introduced to Leo Burmester’s Uncle Reeves’ character, a true old-school Southern gentleman. All of these characters add a lot to the color and richness of the film.

Rounding out the texture of Passion Fish is the film’s setting. One of the unique aspects of Sayles’ films is that he typically likes to set his stories in locales that you don’t usually see in Hollywood movies. Moreover, not only does he set his stories in unique locales, but he actually shoots his films in those locales (instead of having Canada stand-in for another setting like most film productions do). He thoroughly researches the culture and people of the settings and incorporates them into his stories. What results is a far richer and engrossing experience than you will get in most films. Sayles manages to accomplish what many filmmakers struggle and fail to do, which is to create a whole world that captures the audience. Passion Fish is set in rural Louisiana and so you get introduced to the French Cajun accent, the music, the swamps, and the slower pace of life.

John Sayles is a rare breed of filmmaker. He has become a poster child of true independent filmmaking and its an amazing testament to his skills and talents that he has managed to remain independent throughout his career. He does not compromise his films under any studio pressures or for commercial/financial purposes. Consequently, Sayles makes his films completely under his own terms, which is partly why they are so unique and memorable. Passion Fish is a great addition to Sayles’ filmography and if you have any appreciation for good storytelling, I urge you to check this movie out.

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