Review: ‘The Genius and the Opera Singer’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

The Genius and the Opera Singer
(UK, 70 min.)
Dir. Vanessa Stockley
Programme: World Showcase (World Premiere)


Grey Gardens meets What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in the intimate and unsettling The Genius and the Opera Singer. The doc chronicles the lovingly toxic relationship between 92-year-old Ruth and her 55-year-old daughter Jessica as they share a New York apartment of claustrophobic chaos. Part documentary, part verité-style horror show, this film by Vanessa Stockley depicts one of the most uncomfortable, gruelling, and revealing mother-daughter relationships ever caught on film.

The film opens with Jessica bringing her dog, Miss Angelina Jolie, into a branch of the NYPD to sass out an officer and revive a grudge match that has lingered since the pooch pooped on the station floor. Jessica’s addiction to confrontation becomes immediately apparent. Stockley then takes audiences inside the quarters of the family’s rent-controlled apartment to show Jessica’s temperamental social skills in full force.

The action that Stockley presents takes place shortly after Jessica scored a legal victory by getting Ruth freed from her care facility. Jessica explains how authorities had declared Ruth “incompetent” and forced her into a nursing home—a decision of which neither mother nor daughter approved. Ruth, a former opera singer of modest success (or no success, in Jessica’s estimation), clings to the memories and beauty of her youth. Jessica, meanwhile, mopes bitterly that she, a genius and child prodigy (or dumbass/underachiever, in Ruth’s estimation), never had the opportunity to fulfill her potential due to her mother’s self-absorption.

Over the course of a few days, mother and daughter provoke one another to assign blame for lives with which they’re dissatisfied. The pair brings out the worst in each other and they both know the right buttons to push to set the other off. Jessica fought to preserve her mother’s sanity; now she’s intent to destroy it since they’re back under the same roof.

The Genius and the Opera Singer is utter hell to sit through, but one must applaud Stockley’s courage to tough it out with these subjects. One watches The Genius and the Opera Singer with a mix of unease, disgust, and awe. Many people might throw their hands in the air and exit quietly through the side door when the subjects squabble so incessantly and mean-spiritedly; however, Stockley’s fearlessness and willingness to sit in the trenches as her subjects do battle affords the film some raw and powerful footage. One scene, for example, lets a brutal confrontation play out in real time as Jessica spews vile truth telling at her mother while Ruth takes the bait, and returns the fire.

There are moments of lucidity, though, as Jessica and Ruth reveal a relationship that is not beyond repair. The family sings some Sinatra tunes together and not all the memories they share are bad ones. Stockley also captures the innate devotion that connects the subjects as Jessica tends to her mother because she acknowledges her responsibility to the woman who raised her. There are obvious tics of manipulation and bitter medicine within Jessica’s nursing, but the care is there. Stockley delivers an intense study of mental illness and a fascinating glimpse at the family ties that bind—or, in this case, keep family together through a mutual chokehold.

The Genius and the Opera Singer is seventy fond minutes of meanness, screaming, and yelling. It’s just great.

The Genius and the Opera Singer screens: -Sunday, April 30 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 6:00 PM -Monday, May 1 at TIFF Lightbox at 3:30 PM

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.

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