The English language is often employed to devalue femininity, both in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Looking through critics’ reviews of Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes from 2005 – the year the film was released – some writers seem so concerned with its girliness that they’re dismissive entirely of its plot. “If movies were scratch-and-sniff, In Her Shoes would be a cloying blend of patent leather, melon lip-gloss and potpourri sachets,” wrote Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Film Threat’s Michael Ferraro described the film as “the most overly dramatic and estrogen-filled motion picture since Garry Marshall’s Beaches.”
Indeed, the film appears to have been written off by many critics that year as an excessively sentimental chick flick, and that’s an opinion they’re entitled to. It’s not totally wrong to classify the film as “schmaltzy” – in its 130-minute runtime, there’s plenty of mushiness to go around. But In Her Shoes also has several important things to say, not just about love and family, but also about gender, learning disability, and mental illness.
Directed by the late Hanson (of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile fame), In Her Shoes is based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Weiner, and was adapted for the screen by Susannah Grant. The film follows two Philadelphia sisters, Rose and Maggie Feller (played by Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz, respectively), who love one another but whose relationship was forever changed by their mother’s death when they were children.
These days, their sisterly bond is held together by only a handful of threads. Neither of the two can stand their stepmother, Sydelle, who never quite came to love them as much as her own daughter, Marcia. They share a memory of their late mother Caroline – then battling bipolar disorder – spontaneously taking them to New York City, where they adopted a dog named Honey Bun. And they do wear the same shoe size – a fact that’s largely unimportant to the film’s plot, but one that has played a role in the story’s marketing.
In its most ambitious undertaking, the film attempts to draw attention to how quickly we place female characters like Rose and Maggie into boxes. As in real life, women in film and literature are often framed using simple (and reductive) dichotomies. Virgin versus whore. Damsel in distress versus Strong Female Character. There’s little room for nuance with these characterizations, but because they’re lazy, they’re everywhere.
In Her Shoes begins this critique by giving us our first glimpses of the two sisters in a montage set to Garbage’s “Stupid Girl.” Rose, the law associate, bumps into her attractive colleague, Jim, and drops an armful of file folders. After a couple of workplace flirtations, they spend the night together at her apartment. Meanwhile, Maggie is drunk and having sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall at her ten-year high school reunion. Her voice-over tells us she can’t remember her partner’s name, and their hookup is cut short when she begins vomiting. Maggie is hereby characterized as the attractive but ‘loose’ younger sister, whereas Rose is intelligent but plain. The latter is surprised to have a man sleeping in her bed because the list of things she likes about herself is a short one. As she explains in her own voice-over while Jim sleeps beside her, “A thong would look ridiculous on me. I wear cotton briefs.”
Additional scenes attempt to further distinguish the two sisters according to their sexual lives and habits. Maggie lives from one retail paycheck to the next, and over the years, has mastered the art of never having to pay for her own drinks. Rose benefits from this when the two go out together, but she worries about her sister’s long-term financial plan nonetheless. “You need a job, Maggie,” she tells her. “There’s a whole world of commerce out there that has nothing to do with sex… where people actually make money without seducing anyone.” Without missing a beat, Maggie snaps back, “Obviously, or you’d starve.” But although each sister may criticize the other’s life, it’s made very clear in the film’s set-up that neither is all that happy with her own.
We’re led to believe that we can predict each sister’s behaviour using what little information we have of them. To our surprise, however, In Her Shoes uses the remainder of its run-time to prove us wrong.
While snooping around their father’s house for hidden cash, Maggie stumbles upon two decades’ worth of unopened greeting cards from their estranged maternal grandparents, Ella and Ira. It’s revealed that since their mother’s death, their father has hidden his in-laws’ attempts at communication with them, effectively preventing a relationship of any kind. But before Maggie can share her discovery with Rose, they have a fight. It begins as a relatively trivial one, but escalates when Maggie does the unthinkable and sleeps with Jim. They’re caught in the act and Maggie is forced out of Rose’s apartment, neither sister fully able to process what has just happened. With nowhere to go and no real obligations, Maggie travels to Florida to see her grandparents for the first time in twenty or so years.
When she arrives, however, she finds only Ella still living. Played by Shirley MacLaine, Ella lives in what’s described as a “retirement community for active seniors.” She’s cold and overly formal with even her close friends. She politely welcomes Maggie into her home, but isn’t quite sure how to be a grandmother after all these years. Meanwhile, Rose is left to recuperate after the two-in-one loss of Jim and Maggie. She takes a leave of absence from her law firm, walking dogs on the side and eventually agreeing to go on dinner dates with Simon Stein, a kindhearted lawyer whose advances she had previously rebuffed.
As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “[Maggie’s] growth nudges both of the other women into new directions.” Maggie finds a job at the assisted living centre near Ella’s home, and later launches a personal shopping service once she realizes she can capitalize on her good taste. In turn, Ella finds herself opening up more to Maggie, eventually broaching more taboo subjects. Most significantly, they discuss the rift in their family that resulted from Caroline’s death. Maggie’s presence in Ella’s life ultimately inspires her to consider dating again for the first time since Ira’s passing. She begins spending more time with Lewis, a funny retiree who also lives in her community. While Maggie gets better at being a grownup, Ella learns how to be less of one.
Back in Philadelphia, Maggie’s absence means that Rose can take care of herself and only herself. In her blossoming relationship with Simon, she feels genuinely deserving of the love she receives. Crucially, she also learns that stepping away from her law practice does not make the world stop turning. With her newfound self-esteem and sense of control, Rose finally feels happy with her life. When Rose, Maggie, and Ella all reunite towards the film’s end, each has broken free from the mold that defined them at its beginning.
In Her Shoes is also thoughtful in the way it portrays Maggie’s learning disability. The film offers no explanation as to why she has difficulty reading. (Perhaps she had been learning to do so when her mother passed away.) That she struggles with illiteracy is established through small moments during the film’s set-up. After Rose drives drunk Maggie home from her high school reunion, she asks whether she has considered going back to school. “I mean the literacy place,” she clarifies. Later, Maggie auditions to be the new MTV VJ, but finds that she can’t read the teleprompter as fast as it moves.
Only once during the film is this limitation of Maggie’s wielded at her as an insult. After Rose comes home to find Maggie and Jim in bed together, she makes a point of cutting Maggie down to size in his presence. “She won’t even remember your name. In fact, she can’t even spell it. Can you, Mag?” she sneers at her. “Pretty, but real stupid.”
At the assisted living centre where Maggie works, one of the residents under her care is a blind former professor who wants to be read to. Each time he asks – a book of poetry already in hand – she’s visibly panicked and comes up with a reason to turn him down. “What is it, dyslexia?” he eventually asks her. “What are you, a teacher?” she snaps back, probably having had several who tried to diagnose or label her difficulty reading while she was growing up.
“Just take your time, Maggie,” he says. Unlike Rose or the teleprompter, he’s willing to offer her his patience. The first thing he has her read is a poem called “The Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop. After she makes her way through it, he asks her what she thinks it means. She proposes, sadly, that it’s about the loss of a friend. In response, he delivers a compliment that seems to actually startle her: “A+. Smart girl.” The professor plays a vital role in Maggie’s development as a character, likely more than he ever understands. As Ebert points out, Maggie knows he’s not interested in her for her looks.
Her kind tutor eventually passes away, but his impact on Maggie endures. At Rose and Simon’s wedding, Maggie surprises everyone by reading a poem to the congregation. She chooses “I Carry Your Heart with Me” by E.E. Cummings – a common wedding poem that doubles as a tribute to the sisters’ surviving relationship. Rose is brought to tears, never having heard her sister read comfortably before.
Additionally, the film is sensitive in its depiction of a family divided by, and still coming to terms with, a mother’s suicide. The late Caroline’s bipolar disorder is never discussed in explicit terms, so mental illness remains the Feller family’s elephant in the room. When Rose announces to her father that she’s taken a leave of absence, for example, his first instinct is to awkwardly ask whether she’d like to “talk to someone.”
Rose and Maggie’s lives have been coloured by the absence of their mother, with Rose having become a stand-in parent of sorts to Maggie after her death. Though never seen in the film aside from in photographs, Caroline has a sort of omnipresence, not unlike the titular character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Our own image of Caroline is constructed through her family members’ memories. “She was special… different from the other moms,” Maggie tells Ella. She seems to be remembered most for her beauty, her spontaneity, and her outbursts.
Caroline’s death was initially classified as a car accident and, more than twenty years later, is still referred to as such. That it was intentional in nature is a fact known only by Ella, though Rose has always suspected it. “It wasn’t a car accident. I mean… there was a car, and… there was a crash,” Ella tells her friend, Mrs. Lefkowitz. But two days after Caroline’s funeral, Ella received a note in the mail that read: “Please take care of my girls.”
It’s made clear that prior to her death, there was tension among Caroline’s loved ones regarding how best to manage her mental illness. Ella thought it wise for Caroline to always be on her medication, but she could not do so if she wanted to carry children. Ella tells Maggie that she “had unwelcomed ideas about how to keep her safe,” including her belief that Caroline was in no condition to have children of her own. But as she concludes, rather regretfully, “I wish I’d kept my big mouth shut long enough to hear what she wanted out of life.”
Additional tension is caused by the fact that the two sisters have different understandings of Caroline’s death. What Maggie remembers as their mother’s quirks – taking her daughters spontaneously to New York City without telling her husband, giving her a plastic tiara in her lunchbox instead of a lunch – were really displays of Caroline at her most unstable. By the film’s end, however, she catches on. “It was on purpose, wasn’t it? The car… the tree?” she asks Rose. “You were so little,” her sister responds. “How do you tell a six-year-old her mom left by choice?”
At heart, In Her Shoes follows three decidedly imperfect women who come to learn from one another’s virtues and flaws. The film resists the urge to treat Maggie’s learning to read as “inspirational” and ultimately argues that those with mental health issues should have the right to autonomy. As Ebert remarked in his review of Hanson’s film, “What is a ‘chick flick’ anyway but an insulting term for a movie that is about women instead of the usual testosterone carriers?” The film does contain some of the “saccharine fluff” that seemed to offend so many critics upon its release, but its story contains a valuable lesson about giving those you love the space and time to come into their own.
by Sydney Urbanek
Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.