Herself Review: A soul-affirming and triumphant story of rebuilding from the ashes of abuse
The newest film from Phylidia Lloyd, director of The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia!, is a rise from the ashes of abuse story full of emotional empowerment and personal triumph.
Just within the first few minutes, Lloyd paints a daunting picture of the trauma that has left Sandra (Clare Dunne), a mother of two girls, scarred and in a troublesome spot. The opening delivers a shocking emotional blow as it showcases the violent abuse Sandra has been subjected to by her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and the anxiety that affects her on a daily basis. Even worse is that in order to get away from Gary’s abuse, Sandra is forced to take her daughters, Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann), into temporary housing as she navigates the broken housing system that makes her case to become their permanent parental guardian all the tougher. If there’s anything to take away from Herself it’s that there needs to be more of effort in helping those that have been abused and not putting them in a helpless position.
With how physically violent Gary is towards Sandra, to the point where he causes major nerve damage in her hand, it’s mind-blowing how she is still forced to interact with him by the court. She’s forced to be face to face with him when she drops off the kids, has to drop the kids off to him even when they don’t want to see him, and must take his under-handed remarks and attempts to remain in her head without any sense of support. There’s not even any sort of supervision to their interactions, which is a tad surprising with how violent Gary is towards Sandra, and Gary’s attempts to turn the tables on Sandra in court is the film’s most poignant look at the justice systems shortcomings for abuse victims. There’s an entire courtroom scene that really fleshes out the judgmental looks that Sandra gets and how abusers can simply keep things in their favor just by appearing normal. All of this leads to an excellent monologue delivered by Dunne that points out how the system is working against her at every turn and never points the finger in Gary’s direction. The line “You never asked, ‘Why didn’t he stop’” genuinely stick with you and bring out this idea of self-responsibility that needs to be brought up more when talking about abuse.
Herself isn’t just dealing with abuse though as it’s also about rebuilding and self-discovery with how Sandra decides to create a better life for Emma and Molly. With the housing system offering no hope for permanency, Sandra ultimately enlists the help of friends to build a house of her own and it’s a genuinely moving experience of growth. Each step of her house coming together and Sandra’s determination to get it done for her girls is truly heartwarming to watch. The growth that she goes through in learning how to build her house and acts as a leader is incredibly touching and the writing from Dunne and Malcolm Campbell and Dunne’s great performance do a great job building her story as inspirational and triumphant. Even the way she pushes past her own obstacles and scars left from Gary’s abuse is enough to make her rise to self-worthiness impactful, but the film takes it one step further with how it impacts Emma and Molly.
The film showcases the impact parents have on their children, good or bad, very well with how Emma and Molly’s reactions are based on their parent’s actions. From Molly’s fear of seeing Gary during his visitations because of her seeing him abuse Sandra to Emma knowing a code word to get help when Gary is hurting Sandra, it’s very evident how impressionable Emma and Molly are. It’s what makes the ending of this film so perfect with how they comfort Sandra after a terrible tragedy and help her regain her strength. Them seeing Sandra’s efforts to give them a better future legitimately leaves an impact and leaves things on an uplifting and empowering note that’s easy to connect to.
Herself is a soul-affirming rise from the ashes of abuse story that not only presents the scars that persists because of the lack of support they receive from the justice system, but also triumphant rebuilding and self-development that’s elevated through a standout performance from Dunne.