How Stella Got Her Groove Back

How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Twentieth Century Fox 1998.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Twentieth Century Fox 1998.

Before watching the movie:

So maybe this will be the lighter film I was hoping for last week. This is definitely sold as a feel-good movie and I think a romantic comedy? It can’t be too serious with Whoopi Goldberg playing the best friend.

I always have this movie’s plot conflated in my head with Peggy Sue Got Married, for no other reason than the vaguest of similarities in the title (“past-tense complete sentence that refers to the female protagonist by name”). Obviously they are very different movies.

So anyway, this is the story of a 40-something (who looks like she’s in her early 30s) having a fling with a 20-something on a vacation and… embarking on  a journey of self-discovery? Rediscovering a youthful spirit she’s lost in the rat race? Telling her boytoy to stay the hell away from her daughter? I’m not entirely clear on what this groove is, but it’s obviously a good thing, not something to beware.

After watching the movie:

Stella Payne is a successful broker and divorced mother gets pushed into a Jamaican vacation by her best friend Delilah. She immediately meets Winston Shakespeare, a young islander who’s absolutely taken with her, though he’s exactly half her age. He manages to get her to put that concern aside for a while, and she gives into having a vacation affair. Only he wants more than a week’s dalliance and she’s fallen for him too. It’s not long after returning home that she finds the time to bring her preteen son down to Jamaica with her (thanks to getting laid off at work over her first vacation) and before long, he’s moving in with her at home, and then the difficulties of having such a relationship move from theory to practice.

This is romantic, and comedic, but it’s not much like most romantic comedies. Where most romantic comedies would end, this goes almost an hour longer. The Graduate only takes a moment to ponder the consequences of a life-altering move, this takes half its runtime with it. It’s a grown up story with adult responsibilities flirting with a youthful fantasy genre.

In the end, it even makes the youthful, impulsive choice over the sensible pragmatic one. Like many romantic movies, I have to disagree with the happy ending. The case against was better made than the case for. I wish more “light” movies could have the imagination to come up with endings more plausible than obligatory. (So far only Broadcast News has really satisfied that wish for me). At least here I get more of a sense that they’ve decided to face their problems rather than ignore them in favor of a moment of believing everything is okay.

It’s a really tough balance to strike making the characters have believable chemistry while also portraying them as different ages. I had a hard time seeing it outside of the moments it comes up to create friction between them, but possibly the best example is the contrast in how they relate to her 13-year old son Quincy. While Stella is obviously a mother to him, Winston is somewhat more like an older brother, only seven years his senior. The scenes Winston has serious talks with Quincy respecting him as a peer aren’t too much different from any other nice non-relatives talking to kids as equals with a wider age gap, but they don’t just talk, they play. They both enjoy the same video game together, and most of Quincy’s concerns about meeting Winston evaporate when he jumps into the pool to join the game of Marco Polo. On the other hand, scenes like the argument over who pays for dinner are stated to be about their age, but could play exactly the same with two people the same age in the same income disparity.

I still don’t have much sense of the groove Stella got back. She didn’t seem to have lost much in her outlook on life before meeting Winston, nor has her attitude changed much after him, aside from how happy and aggravated he can make her. This title belongs on a much more cut-and dried classic romantic comedy. There’s too much ambiguity here to say if any kind of groove has been won back, in my opinion. Perhaps it’s a level of subtlety I’m not ready to understand.

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