In Anaconda, Montana it isn’t unusual to see a middle-aged military veteran stumbling out of one of the rural towns two bars at an ungodly hour. The unbearable pain of many veterans that never healed from their wartime past is hard to imagine. Mickey and the Bear tackles the underrepresented subject of how their trauma creates behaviour that affects the veteran’s children. Growing up partially in rural New Mexico I’m not a stranger to this phenomenon, but I’ve never seen a film delve into this particular aspect of inherited trauma so completely, and from the perspective of a young woman. Mickey and the Bear is director Annabelle Attanasio’s feature debut and she has entered the scene with a unique and important perspective. Part coming of age drama, part inherited trauma study, this under appreciated gem of SXSW 2019 is worth checking out.
At the core of Mickey and the Bear is the strained father daughter relationship between Hank (James Badge Dale) and Mickey (Camilla Morrone). Hank is an Iraq War Marine Corps vet and single father; the bear of the title. Mickey’s mother died of cancer when she was a child. The film opens with Mickey trying to sleep while a hypnotic drip from her ceiling slowly brings her to consciousness. As the effective head of the household, her first instinct is to find her father, prepare his medicine, and make him breakfast. When he isn’t home, she immediately checks the police station and finds him there preaching to others in the drunk tank. This sets the scene for Mickey’s daily life as her father’s care-giver despite being a high school senior bound for graduation. Hank has severe PTSD and is both emotionally and physically abusive towards Mickey while also being completely dependent on her financially and emotionally. This co-dependence leaves Mickey with guilt and reluctance when she applies to go to college on the west coast.
Although the exposition of Mickey and her father’s living circumstances in rural poverty could be viewed as poverty porn, I would argue that it is simply an honest reflection of a reality that is known by many, if not most, rural Americans. Attanasio’s portrait of Mickey, is at once familiar and totally new as I’ve never seen rural teenage life reflected so completely on screen. Everything about Mickey’s trailer home and effortless tomboy fashion sense (composed of her father’s army green jackets and baggy wolf t-shirts most likely pawned from a native trading post) paints an accurate picture of teenage life in the rural mountains. Mickey wears baggy jeans and men’s t-shirts with her hair either hanging in a stringy mess or piled on her head with a loose scrunchie for utility. She can shoot a gun but isn’t overly fond of them and she works as a taxidermist’s assistant after school in a town short of jobs. Everything she has experienced has taught her to be independent and strong while also tying her indefinitely to this small town with few opportunities.
One scene that perfectly illustrates rural life and Hank’s misguided masculinity is when he invites Mickey and her new boyfriend Wyatt (Calvin Demba) to go bear hunting with them. She protests, but eventually agrees, knowing Hank will never let it go. He gives Wyatt a rifle and enthusiastically bounds up the rocky terrain to scout bear while Mickey and Wyatt do their own thing, no intention of hunting. At one point, Hank throws his gun and drunkenly jumps after it off the cliff into a lake, worrying the kids. Wyatt dives in and drags him to shore, but Hank punches him in the face protesting that he didn’t ask to be saved. The hunt ends abruptly and Wyatt walks home, unable to put up with the physical abuse to which Mickey is accustomed.
Mickey is surrounded by many peripheral characters throughout the film. The few that stand out are her psychiatrist Leslee Watkins (Rebecca Henderson); a symbol of freedom, her long term boyfriend Aron (Ben Rosenfield); the picture of rural life, and her new love interest Wyatt; an immigrant from the UK who is bound for college on the west coast. Each represents an aspect of Mickey’s psyche. Watkins reminds her to take care of herself and looks out for her well being above Hank’s, Aron shares personality traits of her father and wants her to marry him and live in Anaconda indefinitely. Wyatt is the worldly independence that Mickey wishes she had. He is leaving for San Francisco and has cut ties with his abusive parent. As Mickey grows up and comes into her own over the course of the film, she realises that her power dwells within herself and can’t be derived from these people – and especially the men around her. She realises as the three men in her life let her down that she must choose to live her life independent of their desires and forge a path for herself. The abrupt ending leads the audience to believe Mickey has broken free of the cycle of trauma and abuse. She literally runs full speed towards the bouncing camera and away from everything she has known to make a life for herself. Mickey and the Bear is Mickey’s story, not Hank’s, and as the credits roll she leaves the audience with a hopeful feeling that beyond the film, Mickey has found a life independent of her father.
by Janet Reinschmidt
Janet Reinschmidt is a fifth generation New Mexican currently residing in Austin, Texas. She is an aspiring audiovisual archivist and film historian specializing in LGBT and women’s stories. She is passionate about silent film, Citizen Jane Film Festival, dogs, and Lily Tomlin’s comedy albums. 2019 marks the sixth year in a row that Janet has nominated the film Stage Door for consideration to the National Film Preservation Board. Follow her on letterboxd for rants and gay film reviews.