JUNK FOOD: In Praise of Helpers

April 2021

I already loved Matilda when the movie came out in 1996. The bright colors and from-a-kid’s-vantage camerawork charmed me in the same ways Dahl’s words had, underscoring the performance from little Mara Wilson who played “Matilda” as clever but not showy, sad but not defeated. In the story, when she finally gets to attend school her teacher, Miss Honey, sees Matilda in a way her family can’t. This opens Matilda’s eyes to unconditional love as Miss Honey shows her that not all adults are bad.

teacher holds pitcher of water in air next to young girl with brown hair; Matilda

I find it so strange, so lovely, so sad that we learn so many lessons through the hardships suffered by fictional children. The resilience a kid displays in the face of overwhelming odds is how a story taps into the audience’s pathos, thereby increasing the likelihood the lessons will stick; we remember the things that make us feel. I remember how movies make me feel so I’m careful to curate my re-watches (hence “JUNK FOOD: The Stuff I Consume to Feel Better”). But sometimes a re-watch can hit differently, and make me feel a way I didn’t expect.

boy with face covered in chocolate cake next to sneering woman; Matilda

I hadn’t rewatched my copy of Matilda in some years. And certainly not since I learned Mara Wilson lost her mom while filming. On screen Miss Honey saw Matilda needed help, so she helped. Off screen, director Danny Devito saw Mara needed help, so he and costar/wife Rhea Perlman helped and welcomed Mara as part of their family. Both Matildas needed love and help, and both got help from their teachers.

a family looks confused; Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman in Matilda

I had put Matilda on to feel happy and charmed but, watching it now, my smile is punctuated with silent tears, called forth by watching a kid need help, and get it.