Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Judith Helfand’s new documentary Love & Stuff is an extremely intimate memoir dealing with some hard-hitting themes. And while its approach may not always be the most polished, Helfand does a very good job of making her story into something uplifting in an unexpected way.
The film follows Helfand as she begins to finalize the process of becoming an adoptive single mother at the age of fifty, all the while dealing with the lasting emotions from the recent loss of her own mother. It’s a clearly personal and specific story, but the universal emotions which it addresses are what makes this story resonate.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the movie is the way in which Helfand draws comparisons between her experiences of joy and grief. Soon after facing one of the most difficult moments in her life, she is thrown into one of the most joyous, and yet her reflections on the relationship she had with her mother guide her in this new territory.
The title of the film refers to the realizations that Helfand comes to as she sorts through her mother’s belongings in order to prepare her home for the arrival of a new family member. It’s interesting and inspiring to see how, despite the challenges she faces, Helfand finds room in her heart to love a child.
However, even more uplifting are the home videos that Helfand uses. While this is very much about the filmmaker’s experiences, it’s also a love letter to her mother. In telling her story and diving through these materials, she seems to have realized some of the quiet and unexpected ways in which her mother expressed her love to her.
That said, there is a subplot of the movie involving Helfand as she fulfills some of her mother’s last wishes, one of which was for her to lose weight. Although it is related to the matter at hand, Helfand’s other experiences are so much more interesting and compelling. This is about ten minutes of runtime that could have been cut.
The execution of the film is also a bit uneven. Although Helfand’s blend of footage is relatively strong, the movie is largely dependent on a narration by Helfand to tell much of the story. It’s an easy narrative technique that reduces a lot of the emotional impact of the story. It still works, but not quite as well as it could have.
Love & Stuff is a pretty solid documentary about the filmmaker’s own life. Apart from a few portions that don’t hit in the intended way, it’s a much more insightful and sympathetic watch than one would expect.
Love & Stuff is premiering as a part of the online edition of the 2020 Hot Docs Film Festival.