When I look at the eight films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, one title lunges at me like a mama grizzly attacking my cynical Oscar assumptions.

Sure, you’ve got the Brave and Important Movies About Important Social Justice Issues Starring Several White Celebrities (Spotlight and The Big Short). The first one was… pretty good; the other, just okay. You’ve got the obligatory nod to a Spielberg movie (Bridge of Spies) that was… pretty good. You’ve got the blockbuster full of famous names that almost everybody liked (The Martian) — and it was pretty good too. One has a scenario so distressing that it would have been nominated no matter who directed it (Room). Pretty good! You’ve got the Most Likely to Succeed, with its trifecta of Oscar-bait maneuvers: the one that brings back ideas that were executed more innovatively and meaningfully in past films that the Oscars passed by (The New World); that stars an actor who deserved the award at least once in past years (that guy from The Wolf of Wall Street); and that features cast members going to almost psychotic extremes to get attention. Aaaand you’ve got the wild card that shows Oscar’s desire to seem punk rock (Mad Mad: Fury Road), but that stands little to no chance of actually winning. (It was awesome.)

BROOKLYN-teaser_rgbAnd yet, there among the noisemakers and prestige pictures is a modest, quiet, good-natured film focused on women, immigrants, and loneliness. And it focuses on a protagonist who has not one but two honorable and admirable young suitors. There is no villain. There’s nothing showy about it. The cast succeed through understatement. The conflict is not contrived. The style is not attention-seeking in its realism, nor is it gratingly stylized.

The most common complaint I’ve heard about Brooklyn? “There’s just not enough conflict in it to make it interesting.” Actually, that has a lot to do with why I had no trouble suspending disbelief, why the human-scale tensions of the story took hold and made me care. It’s the only film among the Best Picture nominees that actually moved me to genuine, non-compulsory tears. And it marks the graduation of lead actress Saoirse Ronan from the class of Quirky and Charming Young Actors to that rare class of Leading Ladies Who Seem Like Genuine Human Beings instead of future cosmetics models.

It’s kind of hard to believe that Brooklyn exists. This premise doesn’t exactly leap off the page as big-screen material: In 1952, Ellis Lacey, an Irish shopgirl dispirited with the options open to her for the future, seizes an opportunity to escape those discouraging templates and emigrates to America. There, she struggles to find her feet. Challenged and assisted by roommates, friends, a kind-hearted priest, and a lovestruck Italian suitor, she begins to find her way, only to find her progress complicated by troubles from the world she left behind. And yet the result is so patiently developed, so warm-hearted, so humane that — in spite of the fact that almost none of the clothes look lived-in, almost none of the cars look like they’ve ever driven through a puddle, almost none of the props look like they’ve been used before — the characters became unusually three-dimensional and compelling.

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Is it a startling work of directorial mastery? I don’t think so. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby have made something that feels something like a handsomely filmed Masterpiece Theater movie perfect as a date-night choice for people who love to read. (It is, in fact, an adaptation of a celebrated novel by Colm Tóibín.) But considering the competition — I think 2016’s selections are a fairly mediocre (and alarmingly whitewashed) lot — I’m more than happy to see such an honest, heartfelt work getting attention. (And I’m in favor of anything in this toxic political climate that reminds us that America is a nation of immigrants.)

And as crowdpleasing love stories go, this one was surprisingly unpredictable. In almost every scene I felt myself bracing for conventional movie twists — especially when it came to the suspicious goodness of the young men in Ellis’s orbit. I was pleasantly surprised every time.

I’m delighted to see Saoirse Ronan shine so brightly here. I feared she would take the Cate Blanchett route, and start focusing only on prestige pictures with roles that shout “SERIOUS ACTING.” But the combination of Grand Budapest Hotel and Brooklyn have made me a fan of her subtle humor and her ability to steal a scene quietly instead of competitively. She serves her characters in a way that serves the whole picture. And she’s learning to use more than just her amazing eyes in a performance, fulfilling the promise she showed in Atonement.


Also worthy of shout-outs: Emory Cohen, who gives the best Young Johnny Depp performance since, well, Young Johnny Depp himself appeared in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Jim Broadbent as a gentle and generous priest (boy, did we need one of those this year). Domnhall Gleeson, in his one hundredth supporting performance in 2015 (or at least it seemed that way). And Julie Walters brings a bit of reckless humor to the proceedings as a smirking landlady.

There are moments when the film’s respect for the promise of America gets a little gauzy and shiny. But there is real human hurt in this story of hard decisions. Most people need stories about how important it is to love you neighbor as yourself. But some of us also need stories about the second half of that equation — that to invest oneself only in duty, seeking to fulfill only the expectations of others, is to live dishonestly, and to disrespect the will and the gifts one has been given for a purpose.

Ronan’s radiant Ellis is a great character. I didn’t realize, because of the pronunciation of her name, the significance of that name. But when I saw it spelled out at the end of the film, I had to smile. Of course. Perfect. What a great New York story.

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