I am a sentimental fool. Such a life can be a double edge sword. Cutting one way, it means that you are pleasant and thoughtful towards others. Cutting the other, you can get trapped in a pit of nostalgic sadness. Being this kind of person also makes me prone to the wiles of certain types of films. I do not count myself the biggest fan of romance movies. They seem to pile on the emotional manipulation a little too heavily. However, when they can mix in the right amount of genuine feeling and tenderness with a story that is uplifting, then you will get an appreciative reaction out of me. You see many of these elements in today’s film, Hope Floats (1998).
Not that Hope Floats gets off to the best start. Birdee Pruitt (Sandra Bullock) appears on one of those cheesy daytime talk shows, hosted by Toni Post (Kathy Najimy), where people are surprised to find out that their significant other is actually another gender, or some other form of shock. Birdee is there at the behest of her best friend, Connie Phillips (Rosanna Arquette), but she believes she is there for a makeover. When Birdee removes her blindfold, she is surprised to find Connie. That is not the only astonishment in store for Birdee. Eventually, her husband Bill (Michael Paré) is brought in and the next thing Birdee finds out is that Bill has been having an affair with Connie. Birdee makes the logical move: she packs up her stuff, and her and her daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman) head to Birdee’s home town of Smithville, Texas. They go to live with her mother, Ramona Calvert (Gena Rowlands), in her taxidermy filled house, along with the kid of many characters, Birdee’s nephew Travis (Cameron Finley). Birdee is resigned to her fate, whereas Bernice believes Bill still wants her around and places most of the blame on her mother. As they settle in, Ramona begins inviting around an old friend of Birdee’s from high school, Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.). It is clear that Ramona thinks they should be together, though Birdee protests, not feeling like she is in any position to be romantic with anyone else. Bernice is dealing with her own issues. At her new school, there is a bully named Big Delores (Rachel Snow) who, as in the natural order of elementary school culture, decides to pick on the new girl. It remains mostly verbal until one day at recess, an errant volleyball volley by Bernice lands squarely in Big Delores’ face. She then beats up Bernice after school. As for Birdee, the return of the former cheerleader and prom queen causes quite a stir in this small town. Old friends and enemies crop up, and one of her high school detractors, Dot (Dee Hannigan), now runs the local employment agency. Despite not remembering Dot initially, Bernice senses that she needs to humble herself, and in so doing is able to find a job working at a local film development lab. Its owner, Mr. Davis (Norman Bennett), is thrilled to have Birdee working for him. Still, being back where she grew up makes Birdee recall all she hoped she would be one day, and how it actually turned out. Her interactions with the insistent, though well intentioned, Justin seem to make her emotional state worse. After they spend the night together, he believes he is close to having a real relationship with her. However, when Ramona makes an ill-advised candlelit dinner for Birdee and Justin that does not go over well, it sends her to the closest bar to drown her sorrows. Upon returning, she has reached her lowest point, and Ramona takes over the care of Bernice. Unfortunately, Ramona passes away not too long later, leaving Birdee to handle the estate. During the funeral, Bill returns to pay his respects, and tells Birdee that he is seeking a divorce. As he is leaving, Bernice believes he has finally returned to take her back to Chicago with him, and his subsequent denial and her tears are gut wrenching. The experience also turns out to be a healing one for Birdee, and she finally seems set to move on with her life. She is able to mend her relationship with her daughter, and she lets Justin quite literally sweep her off her feet. The final scene features Bernice, Birdee, Justin and Travis happily strolling alongside a Fourth of July parade, and in voiceovers discussing how it was hope that brought them through it all.
One part of Hope Floats that I did not cover above is Harry Calvert (James N. Harrell), Birdee’s father. He is in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Some of the most tender moments of the film are shared between Birdee and Harry, particularly when she is at her lowest and goes to visit him. When she arrives, he is holding a picture of Bernice that Birdee had given him. As she kneels beside him, he comments on how beautiful his daughter is, obviously confusing Bernice for Birdee. For Birdee, it serves as a reminder of what is truly important. There is a famous line said by Birdee at the end that speaks to the point of the film. It goes, “Beginnings are usually scary, endings are sad, but it’s what’s in the middle that counts. So when you find yourself at the beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.” When Harry sees the picture of Bernice and thinks it is his daughter, it brings to mind all the promise we see in the generations behind us. That is true beauty. This is also a great testament to Faith. God is past, present, and future. He is also the God of hope. At the same time, we can only live in the present, with an eye towards the future. If we dwell on the past, as Birdee does, it can tend to destroy us, to ruin any possibility of a future. Our ultimate hope is to be with God in Heaven, but it works for Birdee with her daughter in the film. It also keeps Harry going, and it speaks to the Catholic belief in the dignity of all life, even one so seemingly far gone as him.
I enjoy Hope Floats on many levels, and I think it is one that can work for many kinds of audiences. I also appreciated the fact that the Calverts are apparently Catholic, and you can see the evidence of their Faith in different pieces of religious ephemera in Ramona’s house. The Catholic funeral she receives helps, too. In the end, it calls us into an unshakeable belief that things will be better, and we can help get closer to the possibility by focusing on what counts. Faith is the vehicle that will take the soul where it desires. That is not going to look the same for all of us, but it is a great lesson to keep in mind.