Passion Fish (1992)

Fade in:

A soap opera star wakes up and realizes she’s now a paraplegic from an automobile accident and must come to grips with the sudden change in her life. She’s bitter, self-pitying and flees New York City for her childhood home in Louisiana to hide out. She begrudgingly adapts with the help of nurse looking for a new life. A strange friendship begins.

That’s quite a film idea.

Sayles on the set of Passion Fish

Written and directed by John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Eight Men Out, Lone Star), he specializes in stories about people who are square pegs in round lives.  He started out writing low-budget films for Roger Corman, where oddball characters populate unbelievable events (Piranha, Alligator, Battle Beyond the Stars).  He continued writing films for others but soon began directing his own scripts.  Return of he Secaucus Seven was his first film, seven friends who return for a reunion and they get into each others lives, a pre- Big Chill film.  A few films later came Brother From Another Planet, about an extraterrestrial who looks like a black guy, who crash-lands in Harlem.  Sayles has a way of setting up a story that is really about something else as you get to know the characters and as they stumble through the problems facing them.

Sayles also wrote and directed Matewan, Eight Men Out and City of Hope, more serious and complex films, showing his rapid growth as a filmmaker.  Matewan and Eight Men Out in particular, established Sayles as a serious filmmaker who can paint a complex story on a limited budget.  He wrote characters that actors lined up to play.

In 1992 came Passion Fish, a film that would bring an Academy Award nomination for Sayles (screenplay) and Mary McDonnell (best actress).  Sayles’ films are ensemble pieces, as Passion Fish was.  Besides McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Straitharn, Vonde Curtis-Hall, Nora Dunn, Leo Burmester and Angela Bassett co-starred.

McDonnell is May-Alice Culhane, angry and defiant in adjusting to her new life, driving away a series of nurses until Chantelle (Woodard) arrives.  Chantelle won’t be so easily driven away, she doesn’t give in to the bad behavior, and even gets May-Alice to work on gaining upper body strength and curtailing her drinking.  Chantelle has secrets of her own, a strict father who has custody of Chantelle’s daughter, a past drug addiction and involvement with an unsavory boyfriend.  She needs the job, but will stand up to May-Alice as required.

Chantelle and her new beau.

Life gets interesting for both women.  Chantelle gets gets a visit from her father and daughter.  Her father wants to witness if Chantelle is overcoming her problems.  He must be convinced she is on the right path before he will grant visitation with his granddaughter.  May-Alice steps up and provides the assurance to Chantelle’s father.  Chantelle also gets involved with a local blacksmith, who has many children of his own.

May-Alice and high school crush.

May-Alice meets up with a man she went to high school with, who does some work on her house and takes May-Alice and Chantelle on his fishing boat for a picnic.  May-Alice had a big crush on him in school, he was a wild, mysterious boy then.  He’s now married with a family, but May-Alice becomes attracted to him.


Over time, May-Alice and Chantelle become something more than employer-employee, they develop an understanding of each other, and a friendship.

A boat trip through the bayou

Sayles is an east coast guy, but understands the vibe of the bayou and Southern mannerisms, just as he did in Lone Star with Tex-Mex life.

May-Alice gets a chance to return to her soap opera in a role that incorporates her disability.


Sayles is good at creating characters that are uniquely weird but totally believable.  You might not always like his characters but you come to understand them.  He also does not tie his films with bow, Sayles leaves some ambiguity for the viewer to ponder.

One criticism of Sayles is his films are slow moving and sometimes meandering in story. Sometimes his films go into character-land at the expense of the story, great episodic pieces that are very interesting but not always essential to the film.  Sayles’ films challenge the viewer, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.


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