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Two new movies remind us of the importance of empathy

Essie Davis in 'The Justice of Bunny King.'
Photo courtesy FilmRise
Essie Davis in 'The Justice of Bunny King.'

Maybe we shouldn’t make so many assumptions. People are rarely as predictable or as simple as they appear, although bad writing often makes them so. But good writing, and just as importantly, great performances, can help us to take a step back and reevaluate what we assume about other people, about why they do what they do, and about what they’re going to do in the future.

I suppose one assumption is safe, at least—Essie Davis and Andrea Riseborough are both going to turn in smashing performances no matter what they’re in and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either turn up in awards season campaigns, except that the movies they’re in may turn out to be too small to whip up the necessary broad enthusiasm. Which is an enormous shame, both because each actor is magnificent, and because their films tell stories, that are, themselves, small, but that push us to examine our biases and ask us to open ourselves up to empathy.

In The Justice of Bunny King, Davis stars as the title character, a woman in New Zealand who, as the movie opens, is trying to see her kids who are in state custody. Her teenaged son seems deeply frustrated with her, and her young daughter seems to have a disability of some kind, but we’re not sure what. Bunny seems to be trying everything she can just to spend some time with her kids, but she’s also not great at following the many rules that have been set up to “protect the children.” She’s living with her sister’s family and is struggling to find her own place to live, a necessary condition for her to be reunited with her kids. Early in the film, she promises her daughter they’ll have a birthday party for her soon, and this becomes the driving force behind much of what she does for the rest of the film. She can’t do a lot, but she’s going to do that, dammit.

We think we probably know who Bunny is, and for a time, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to figure otherwise—Bunny repeatedly makes poor decisions, skirting the law (or at least socially acceptable behavior) and unnecessarily putting more obstacles in her own way. She shows up unannounced at her kids’ foster home even though this is a violation that will undoubtedly be reported, she squats in an expensive condo after pretending she was interested in buying the place. She helps her niece (Thomasin McKenzie) run away from home after catching the girl’s stepfather trying to sexually assault her, but rather than remove themselves entirely from the situation, Bunny returns to the man’s garage to vandalize his car, and later steals that very car. Again and again, we just want to yell, “Bunny, WHY?”

But it’s not just that she’s irresponsible (she is also irresponsible). She’s also, it turns out, in a much more complicated situation than we realized. What we thought was likely true about how she got into this position—that her bad decision-making got her here—is not quite right. And learning what we do about Bunny makes us care about her even more (Davis’ performance already had us caring about her, even as we were desperately exasperated). We also see kindness from people around her who help her along the way, even as she often makes mistakes that jeopardize their kindness. Davis’ expression of Bunny’s dogged determination wins us to her side, and the way first-time director Gaysorn Thavat parcels out information as we go along draws us into the complexity of what we’re actually seeing. It’s an exercise in forcing us to see people as more than their actions, or at least reminding us that we never really know what other people are going through.

While Bunny often makes bad decisions for good reasons, it would be hard to say the same about Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie—her decisions are bad, yes, but the reasons are not good. They’re not malevolent, either, but they are deeply selfish. If The Justice of Bunny King is there to remind us of what we can’t see in other people, this film is here to remind us of the importance of empathy even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. Other than the fact that all people are deserving of empathy, no matter who they are.

Leslie once won almost $200,000 in the lottery in her West Texas town, but that was six years ago and she doesn’t seem to be better off for it. Probably worse. She’s out of work and has no place to live. And she drinks. A lot. More than a lot. She seems to be on shaky ground with her son, but he lets her come to stay with him so she can get back on her feet, as long as she doesn’t drink, which she does, on day one. He sends her back to her hometown on a bus, and into the home of a couple who seem to care a lot about the son, but have clearly had their patience tried by Leslie in the past. She’s out of there in a day, too. In fact, Leslie seems to do whatever she can to damage any potential help she can get, and as quickly as she can damage it—a lot of this is the alcohol, but it’s not like she doesn’t realize this. She is sick, certainly, but she’s also extremely hard to take, for anyone, including us. She’s actively destructive in her personal relationships, and she continues to drink.

But, then, there are people like this. Many of us know them. And still, they are people. Marc Maron’s Sweeney seems to realize this. He runs a motel with his business partner, Royal (The Wire’s Andre Royo), and happens upon Leslie, who’s lurking around definitely not stealing stuff. Instead of running her off, Sweeney offers her a job and a room at the motel, sort of out of nowhere, and pretty obviously against his better judgment. But it also feels like Sweeney has lived a number of decades of life, and he’s had the bruises that come along with that, and he knows other people do, too. He isn’t overly generous, or some kind of magical savior for Leslie, he’s just a nice man who treats her like a human being.

Things don’t change right away, and it’s not entirely clear why they eventually do, although people do change, and sometimes the only reason is that it’s time. By the time there’s some movement, you’d expect we’d have given up on Leslie, too, but Riseborough has drawn us so thoroughly in that we can’t stop watching her, and we begin to see the subtle shifts in how she carries herself, in how clear her eyes are, and in how the people around her affect how she feels. There aren’t seismic shifts, but there are real changes, and they matter, to Leslie and to us. Maron, too, is simply fantastic, gentle and quietly funny. Like Leslie, he’s a person who does things that don’t seem to make sense, although his moves help to heal rather than destroy. We can’t always explain who other people are or what they do, but we can try, and at least we can listen.

The Justice of Bunny King and To Leslie are both available now on VOD.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.