Hot Docs

Helen and the Bear Review: Marriage, McCloskey Style

Hot Docs 2024

6 mins read

Helen and the Bear
(USA, 81 min.)
Dir. Alix Blair
Programme: World Showcase (World Premiere)


A popular adage says that behind every great man is a great woman. That spirit might be truest in politics, one sphere of public life that’s been traditionally dominated by men. Even as western culture evolved with new waves of feminism and civil rights, political animals worked with their wives at the sides, frequently benefitting from their unacknowledged contributions. Helen and the Bear explores one such case with its unique love story. The film goes inside the complicated but loving relationship of Helen and Peter McCloskey. It’s a tale of sacrifice, romance, politics, and animals enriched by its refusal to simplify its portrait of committing to the long haul.

Director Alix Blair, who is Helen’s niece, gains intimate access to the couple. On paper, Peter McCloskey might seem like the ideal subject for a documentary between the two. Indeed, he was the original inspiration for the film. A decorated politician, his biography includes notable tenures such as a deputy district attorney, Congressman, and former presidential candidate. A former Republican who saw the light and became a Democrat in 2007, McCloskey’s history includes a bold habit for holding his parties to higher standards. Helen and the Bear reminds viewers that McCloskey fiercely opposed the Vietnam War and was the first member of Congress to publicly call for Nixon’s impeachment following the Watergate scandal. He also co-authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The latter demonstrates the love for animals he shares with Helen.

While McCloskey has all the right hooks for a good story, Blair intuitively shifts her focus to Helen. Her aunt is 26 years younger than Pete and, as the film crew visits Helen on her 65th birthday, she clearly recognizes that her relationship with Pete approaches its natural end. Facing her own realities of aging, Helen undergoes a personal reckoning. The film explores the dynamics of selflessness and selfishness that inherently complicate a marriage.

Using diaries, old photos, and candid recollections from Helen and Pete alike, Helen and the Bear tells of a young woman who kept her rebellious spirit in check for her family. Helen recalls self-identifying as a boy during her childhood and stifling an attraction to girls. She admits that she sucked it up and did the girl thing in service of the status quo. Eventually, she explains, she landed a gig with a Congressman who knew how to shake up the establishment. After a whirlwind romance, Pete found himself a new wife and Helen a new reality. But she wasn’t prepared for what being a Congressman’s wife entailed.

Snippets of Helen’s diaries lend the documentary an epistolary aura as the pages turn through the years. Helen’s handwriting offers confessions of feeling stifled by marriage. Her drives, ambitions, and longings take a backseat to Pete’s career. Moreover, she writes how finding love with women afforded relief and comfort her marriage failed to provide. She notes how she didn’t hide her relationships with women from Pete, either. She bristles when he calls her his “gay wife” and doesn’t bite when he says he’s game for a divorce, but only if she files for it.

In the present, Blair observes Helen as she confronts the weight of lost time. Lying in bed with six of her dogs, Helen admits her anxiety over knowing that she’ll inevitably spend years in that bed without Pete by her side. Her animals, too, are aging. The task of maintaining a farm with so many dogs, cats, goats, chickens, and horses takes its toll. Pete’s political work hasn’t sagged, either, despite his declining health that demands more of Helen’s time and car.

When it’s time to put down a beloved horse, reality hits Helen like a sledgehammer. An encounter with a dead porcupine on the roadside nearly breaks her. Her grief already works in gear as she mentally prepares for the future.

At the same time, Helen and the Bear observes how wild souls like Helen can’t be tamed. Helen thrives by finding a queer community that gives her comfort. She finds pleasure in the freedom of the open road.

Blair’s gorgeous cinematography captures the passage of time delicately with many scenes appearing at magic hour as the light fades. Executive produced by Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson, Dick Johnson Is Dead), Helen and the Bear unfolds like a romantic novel rooted in the observations of daily life. It’s a portrait of marriage in sickness and health, one that poetically observes the sacrifices entailed in unwavering commitment.

Helen and the Bear premiered at Hot Docs 2024.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

Previous Story

The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine Review: When Family is Golden

Next Story

XiXi Review: The Art of Freedom

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00