Film Review: Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn

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If I ever had any doubt about whether "the ordinary" mattered, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn drove such doubt away. Based on a true story, and adapted from the play by Ellen Cassedy, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn is a life portrait of Jessie Singer Sylvester, a retired elderly Jewish woman living on a pension in 1976 who is confronting the changes in her life and in her beloved Brooklyn neighborhood.

With its screenplay lifted directly from the words of Jessie's diary and interwoven with the Walt Whitman poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the film brings into focus the day-to-day experiences of one woman's life that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The narrative immediately drew me in, not because of its uniqueness, but because of its tender simplicity coupled with Jessie's sweet voice in bringing attention to activities that many of us would consider insignificant (or perhaps not worthy of being recorded in a diary). She shares:

"I went to do some marketing. A&P for white bread -- it's gone up from 34 cents to 39. Royal Farms for orange juice and a jar of pickles. Walbaum's for cottage cheese. Key Foods for milk . . . then lunch at the senior center -- my chicken was so tough I couldn't eat it. So I brought it home to save for later." 

What I found so compelling about Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn is how Jessie gives dignity to every moment of her life -- from buying pickles in the supermarket to sitting at her dying sister's bedside in the hospital; from washing the dishes to spending a day at the botanical garden; from listening to poetry at the senior center to discovering that her apartment had been ransacked. All of these moments fill Jessie's diary, and out of her collection, evolves a story; not of a woman with particular distinction or charisma, but of a woman who is not afraid to share her humanity. 

Most of us, I suspect, are not like Jessie Singer Sylvester -- we probably don't comment on the cost of gasoline or the ripeness of tomatoes in our journals. We probably don't keep a private record of cooking an omelet or mopping the floor. I suspect that many of us no longer keep hand-written journals at all (I don't) let alone wonder if taking a hot shower is worthy of being written down. And yet, with the explosive use of blogs, online journals, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other web-based innovations, it has become so much easier -- and often desirable -- to expose the minute details of our lives. Is this the present-day evolution of Jessie's diary entries? Or is there a difference? Whether there is or isn't, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn reminded me that all of the moments in our lives -- even those that are nestled inside day-to-day routines that we carry out unconsciously -- are part of a living history. Not only does this history matter, but it offers a kind of empathy that I think the world needs more of.

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