Movie review: Closure

Every once in a while, someone touches your life in a an unexpected and deeply meaningful way. Such is the case when I had the good fortune to meet Angela Tucker.

Angela Tucker and me.

All because: Once upon a time, I saw a trailer, cried an ugly sniveling cry, and promptly emailed the producer to say ILOVEYOUALLHOWCANISEEYOURFILM? It’s true. I did that waaaay back in the spring, was allowed to see an advanced copy, promised a review, and then I got to hug Angela at Pact Camp because she and her husband brought their film to Pact Camp! My review is horribly delayed because I suck. But you know who doesn’t suck? Angela Tucker, that’s who! You can totally tell from that photo of her, too.

Now, on to the horribly delayed-because-I-suck review:

Angela is the subject of an intensely personal and widely relevant documentary currently making its way through the indie film festival circuit (it’s currently being screened at the Doctober Festival in Bellingham, Wa.). Produced and edited by Angela’s husband Bryan Tucker—with original music by Mr. & Mrs. SomethingClosure follows then 26-year-old Angela on her journey to meet her birth mother, who placed her for adoption when she was born.

Diagnosed as special needs and given a long-term prognosis that didn’t include walking, Angela spent one year in the home of a foster family before being adopted by David and Teresa Burt, a white couple who live in Washington. There they raised a total of eight children, seven of whom were adopted, and Angela flourished into the radiant, active person you see in that picture up there. The same one who chooses, with each new preview of this film, to bravely share what most adoptees would not. And who can blame them? This film is about transracial adoption and the difficult search for identity and connection. This. Is. Big.

The film opens with Angela in a Skype conversation with Teresa. Angela is preparing to dial the number of her birth mother for the first time, and the back-and-forth between the two women is filled with nervous giggles, sighs, reassurances. There is a lot of love and trust between these two, and you feel it immediately. Angela’s mother listens to her daughter, and counsels her calmly about how to end the call if and when she needs to. Angela takes a moment, takes a breath, looks at the camera, then dials. The phone rings and the screen goes dark as Deborah picks up.

The tension created is immediate and doesn’t let up for much of the film. Whether it was intentional on the part of the filmmaker, the first twenty minutes was especially rife with moments that had the potential to go off the rails. Bryan (I’m going with first names since he and his wife share the same last one) focused much of his attention on interviews with David and Teresa telling the story of how they built their family. And as they spoke of Angela’s growing desire to know her birth mother and other relatives, there were admissions that felt sort of…dangerous.

David mentioned not seeing color, just kids in need; Teresa expressed worry about being replaced; Angela’s sister grappled with why their parents weren’t “enough.” In the modern adoption world, we hope for openness and the need to recognize that in fact, adoptive parents aren’t enough. But theirs are real fears spoken of honestly, and it is clear that the family moved beyond them and instead came to fully understand and support Angela’s need to know where she came from, and in rather amazing ways: Angela’s brother-in-law rises to the occasion, and his dedication to not just her but to one of her siblings as well, is something I didn’t expect. This evolution in thinking is crucial and Bryan’s focus on it was smart.

Unable to find her birth mother through the limited records at her disposal, Angela and Bryan decide to focus their search on Angela’s birth father instead. Thanks to determination, the wonder that is the Internet, and a process that left me agape, they find him living in Chatanooga. The family promptly sets off for Tennessee, where they meet Oterious “Sandy” Bell, along with numerous other extended family members. At some point during this meeting, Sandy mentions he knows where Angela’s birth mother Deborah lives, and they once again pile into a van. When Angela and a car load of family members approach Deborah on the sidewalk, Bryan shuts off his camera, realizing that this is a moment that warrants more privacy. And it does: Deborah denies Angela. But still: We had seen a lot. This was a very difficult scene for me, because I felt as though Deborah was ambushed.

That’s not how you’re supposed to do it, I thought. But there is no How To Meet Your Birth Mother handbook, and I found this scene—like much of the film—to be very instructional in backing off with my adoptive parent knows best judgement. This was Angela navigating a very difficult circumstance unfolding in the moment; it makes sense that she would want those she loves most to be there.

And again, this is her story. Which includes Deborah’s rejection—a second rejection, really—which is sharp, and Angela is stunned as she tries to work through why Deborah has done this. “I do feel like I deserve to know stuff. She has an obligation to tell me some things,” Angela says at one point. And we feel her angst completely. I defy anyone to withhold tears at this. We soon learn that Deborah has kept Angela a secret from her family for 26-years and we are given a window into the loss she has experienced as a result of placing Angela for adoption, as well as some insight into the wall this secret built between Deborah and her siblings. That loss ripples out to all of Angela’s people—her aunts, uncles, siblings—who flood her with phone calls, effusive in their longing for her, desperate it seems, to make up for lost time. The voice mails are both joyous and mournful, much like adoption itself.

As defining life moments go, meeting birth family had to be a major kicking up of sediment, and I would guess that neither Angela or Bryan were prepared for the aftermath of repeatedly sharing and discussing this little film with very big implications. To relive it at each screening, to discuss it and defend it and explain it must be exhausting. The audience with whom I watched this movie was made up of adoptive parents and adult adoptees some of whom took great issue with the film’s title (I personally kept thinking that this was less of a closure and more of an opening).  But as Bryan said in a Q & A after the screening, this is Angela’s story, but it’s his film; it is a documentary, but it is art. It should be noted that while this film is worthwhile to any members of the adoption triad—adoptees (age 13 and older), birth parents, and adoptive parents—it can be very triggering, and the title may be a part of that. As I understand it, audiences not intimately familiar with adoption don’t tend to have the same reaction. This film will be  different experience, with different meaning and impact for each viewer, depending on the lens.

I’m no expert in cinematography, but there are some places in this film that felt long to me—a few drives in the car and one scene in a pool hall—and more economical editing wouldn’t have taken away from the tone being established. There are also a several spots with religious overtones that could lend this film to being the darling of the currently in vogue Christian adoption movement.

It sort of goes without saying that Closure doesn’t end in a crisp package with a neat bow. There isn’t an end to this story. This is real life. Bryan Tucker brings his humanity to this film, to his wife’s most personal story, and gives a compelling, heart-wrenching, validating, and deeply moving depiction of her struggle. This is a gift to those of us living in families touched by adoption, for those of us who see ourselves in any of the roles, and offers us much to contemplate and discuss.

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