When story begins with loss or reflects on life after loss, you understand the emotional fuel that drives the pursuit. Loss is something that is universal and we can all connect with it on a deeper level. Whether it‘s the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of trust or the loss of reality as we knew it, learning to get back to where we were or how to create a new identity after we experience trauma are the types of stories that will clearly connect with the audience. This is evident in the Oscar nominated films: 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her and Philomena.
In 12 Years A Slave, which is based on a true story, the character of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living the dream one moment… and the next has everything taken away from him after agreeing to discuss an apparent business opportunity over dinner. That quickly, the reality that he knew is no longer there. He wakes up in shackles; his freedom is gone. The emotional stakes drive the commitment of this character to get back to his family and his former reality. We learn from his journey of survival what a man is made of when it comes to how far he is willing to go to get back to love and life as he knew it. It also shows that even though Solomon’s trust was taken, he was able to find it again and trust the kindness of a stranger in his chance meeting with Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) to help him bring his life back into balance.
Since the story opens showing us what life looked like before the loss, we are able to see everything that is driving this man to survive so that he can return to his family. This technique in story links the personal dilemma of the central character to his pursuit. This is done in all of the movies that I mentioned. Each character has a personal dilemma that ignites their pursuit of bringing life back in balance after loss.
In Captain Phillips, which is also based on a true story, we see the life of Captain Phillips’ (Tom Hanks) before and how everything changes the moment he loses control of his container ship to a crew of Somali pirates. Since we saw the life he was living before the loss, we know what is at stake if he loses the battle. So, we watch as he tries to psychologically outwit the Somali pirate captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The stakes are constantly escalated in this brilliant film. We see a Captain who is driven to save his crew and himself so that he can return to his family. The loss of “what was” is the driving factor.
In Gravity, the loss that drives Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes from a past trauma as well as the present loss that she faces when she is on a routine spacewalk with Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Disaster hits when their space shuttle is destroyed in the middle of a mission. The thematic questions that Ryan is exploring are: “Do I want to live?” or “Do I want to die?” These questions relate to her past loss of a child as well as her present situation on the spacewalk. The universal idea of how do we move forward after loss is something that resonates and connects with people on a very deep level. By seeing her ponder this question in the story and seeing her response, it sends a strong message to the audience.
In the movie, Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely and introverted man who writes letters for people with difficulties expressing their feelings. His loss comes from his pending divorce and his struggle to let go of the marriage. As a result, Theodore purchases a talking operating system named “Samantha.” He falls in love with Samantha as their discussions deepen and their connection grows. The loss of his marriage is what is fueling him. The fear of loss is what leads him to attach to the OS. Their relationship is what takes him to a place where he is ready to let go of his ex-wife, Catherine. The loss of love and how life “was”… sends people into “crazy time.” During this time, people often become easily attached to other objects of desire. This beautiful story is a gift because it is such an internal journey that the filmmaker was able to show in both an internal and external way.
In Philomena, we see the loss of a mother (Judi Dench) whose child was taken from her while she was a teenage charge of a Catholic convent. We also see the loss of identity when former journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is dismissed from the Labour Party in disgrace. It is the loss that both of these characters experienced and the dilemmas that they face in the present that connect them. They go on a journey to find the truth about what happened to Philomena’s son and during their adventure, discover how their basic beliefs are being challenged. The loss of Philomena’s son and the desire to know about his life and his wellbeing are everything to Philomena and fuel her emotional pursuit. For Martin, what starts as a story that can help him to create a new path after his own loss turns out to be so much more.
When the loss is well placed in the story and we understand the wound that is driving the central character as a result of the flaw, the level of emotion is elevated in the story being told. Loss can lead to growth and gain if we are open to the journey.