Meet Ellie Shine
Ellie Shine is a 65-year-old single artist living in New York City. She has a good life: a stable teaching job, successful friends, and a loyal, aging and handicapped dog named Bing. As her dream of a respectable place in the art world becomes more elusive, her frustration about her lack of recognition begins to feel urgent.
Shine looks to gain inspiration and tranquility as she house sits for a friend in upstate New York. She uses the adjoining barn as her workplace where she stages elaborate recreations of classic movie scenes, (i.e. “Some Like it Hot” and “A Clockwork Orange”). Her business surprisingly evolves into possible pleasure when Ellie invites three local men (two gardeners and a lawyer) to participate in her art. The three become romantically interested in Ellie but she is determined not to interrupt her work.
This is a film filled with heart and charm. Its only agenda is to tell a sweet story of likeable people on a journey of self-discovery. At one point in director Laurie Simmons’s “My Art”, New York City art teacher Ellie (Simmons) and Frank (Robert Clohessy), a landscaper and sometime actor who Ellie has recruited for her latest project, are seen dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, respectively, and preparing to recreate scenes from John Huston’s “The Misfits”. Ellie responds that, while it’s impossible for them to ever be Monroe or Gable, they should nonetheless impersonate the two screen legends simply to see what happens. Despite the sheer vagueness of this explanation, which essentially shows Ellie’s approach to the multimedia project she works on throughout the film, it unintentionally explicates the feeling that, like Ellie, Simmons isn’t so much creating art as a means to explore cinema’s effect on identity as she is conducting an act of indulgence.
Ellie’s project begins once her school year ends and she travels upstate to house-sit. She meets and befriends small towners, including Frank. Wisely, Simmons never shows Ellie as being more intelligent or cultured than the townsfolk, but the scenes that don’t involve Ellie at work suffer from something being missing. In one scene, Frank’s landscaping assistant, Tom (Joshua Safdie), and the latter’s wife, Angie (Parker Posey), have a discussion that offers an intriguing glimpse into a relationship marked by unresolved problems and unacknowledged insecurities. Part of the fun of the film is the way the film is staged. Simmons never really elaborates on Ellie’s life and aesthetic ambitions beyond suggesting that the woman seeks to escape from a reality that has her struggling to keep up with the times, a point undermined by a monologue in which Ellie declares how content she is with her life making the recreations feel superficial. And since the reason for why Ellie is working on this specific project remains ambiguous, it’s as if Simmons merely wishes to see herself in other people’s films—which makes the possessive title paradoxical.
When our dreams fail to be realized, cinema calls to us with the promise of sanctuary. For a couple hours, we escape into the lives of others. One of the most refreshing things about Laurie Simmons’ similarly provocative feature directorial debut, “My Art,” is in how it challenges the very notion of what constitutes a happy ending.
Though Simmons is a renowned artist with a career spanning over four decades, she is best known to moviegoers as the real-life mother of Lena Durham.. “My Art” has been described by Simmons as her attempt to explore the mind of a sixty-something female artist on her own terms, and while her performance is just as deftly understated, it contains different layers of intrigue.
The final moments of “My Art” may seem tragic at first glance, until we realize that the “happy ending” for this is different from what we have come to expect. Simmons ends her film on an assuredly optimistic note, as Frank and Ellie watch their dreams becoming realized, all the while standing apart, facing separate directions.