At this time of year, miracles come in many forms.
There have been a lot on football fields in recent weeks, many with one second left, on the last play of the game. Unfortunately, a fantastic finish wasn't in the cards for the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team to cap Coach Dave Shoji's record-setting season. But still, it's a miracle of sorts to live in a place that makes room during the testosterone-fueled fall football season to broadcast women's volleyball live, statewide. Hawaii has long honored strong women, from Pele and Kaahumanu to Patsy Mink - and the Rainbow Wahine proudly carry on the tradition.
As the original sentiments of the season now share the calendar with a host of new holidays celebrating commerce, movies pick up some of the emotional slack. "Philomena" is a good case in point.
Directed by Stephen Frears from true events, it stars Dame Judi Dench as an aging Irish matron still agonizing over the young son she was forced to give up a half-century earlier. Steve Coogan plays a high-profile British journalist trying to ward off his own cynicism and depression at recently being sacked by reluctantly agreeing to write her "human interest" story.
Even at 79, playing a woman with simple thoughts and emotions, Dench is one of those magnetic movie stars who dominates whatever screen she's on. While her performances are routinely Oscar worthy, this one benefits from her terrific chemistry with Coogan. Actually, he's really the driving force behind "Philomena," as its co-writer and co-producer.
Films like this feel like labors of love on both sides of the camera. There is a hard edge to the story - Philomena was a simple lass when she was seduced at an Irish country fair, then was made to pay for her "sin" by being forced into a nunnery that eventually sold her child to an adoptive American family. But the script is a work of wit, occasional humor and unbreakable spirit.
Indeed, as much as it is an intriguing detective story as the pair heads off to America on the trail of the lost son, it is also a gentle battle between cynicism and forgiveness. Despite its underlying outrage at Philomena's nuns, and the religious dogma they used to justify their actions, it's ultimately uplifting, as much a comedy as it is a drama.
That complex intertwining of comedy and drama - otherwise known as the human condition - is the trademark of the Maui Film Festival's FirstLight Academy Screenings in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. FirstLight returns at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday with Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks," co-starring Emma Thompson, Paul Giametti, Jason Schwartzman and Colin Farrell. With Thompson as English author P.L. Travers, the John Lee Hancock-directed dramedy goes behind the scenes to show it took more than a spoonful of sugar to get her novel "Mary Poppins" to the screen.
FirstLight also features "American Hustle," an ABSCAM-inspired crime drama set in the '70s that reunites Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with their favorite writer-director, David O. Russell. It screens Dec. 22.
Prizes from film critics' groups have already begun trickling in as awards season cranks up en route to the Golden Globes and the Oscar nominations. FirstLight features numerous Maui premieres and chances to see pictures like "Blue is the Warmest Color" or "The Great Beauty," expected to be in contention for best foreign film prizes.
More than that, though, FirstLight always feels like it's more than the sum of its parts. That huge Castle Theater screen is a fitting frame for many of the best performances of the year. Seeing the films back-to-back produces a feast of larger-than-life emotions, a chance to get in touch with what makes us human, which might be the most amazing miracle of all.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.