For better or worse, sometimes after watching a film, it takes up a little space in my head and won’t go away until it’s had its say.
Bloomington is one such film.
Hailed as one of the indie films to watch last year, it features the coming of age story of a former television child actress, Jacqueline “Jackie” Kirk as she navigates a new life in a university away from home. There, she wrestles her former stardom, hidden past trauma and a somewhat-illicit relationship with an older female professor.
Ramblings of a Nut: The Enigma of Catherine Stark in Bloomington
While Sarah Stouffer does a great job as Jackie Kirk, balancing the former child star’s sense of world weariness with child-like innocence and wonder, the character whom I was really intrigued with was Alison Mcatee’s Catherine Stark. (Is her Stark surname some kind of Iron Man in-joke for her character’s reputed Casanova ways?)
I’ve read remarks online that expressed uneasiness over the possibilities of an abuse of influence by Catherine in the ensuing liaison, but despite the age disparity, Stouffer’s Jackie is twenty-two in the film, which makes her a legal and willing adult.
Thanks to her friends, Jackie is also well-aware of Catherine’s love life notoriety, and as a survivor of the Hollywood tween star circuit, she would hardly be considered Miss Innocent & Easily Impressionable.
Morever, even whilst Catherine puts the moves on Jackie, she is careful to solicit prior approval from Jackie along the way, fastidously taking care to check in with Jackie if she is all right or comfortable.
(One of my favorite scenes is when Catherine questions Jackie again over if she is sure and whether she has done this before. Jackie gives an affirmative answer to both questions, surprising her.
Jackie: Once, I think.
Catherine: You think?
Jackie: Yeah, but I’m not supposed to say who with. She’s on TV.
Catherine: Oh. Of course. I understand.
The pair proceeds to get on with business. I love.)
I like to think that a part of the discomfort viewing the two of them together stems from the physical; their palpable height difference. (Watch the adorable BTS bit where Sarah Stouffer recounts the indignities of apple boxes.)
To the people who have such a hard time with it; is height really that much of a deterrent when two people fall in love? I have real-life weight-height challenged couple friends and roughly paraphrasing what one told me, having a height difference isn’t that much of a concern when both parties are lying down. (I’m just saying.)
And in spite of her player reputation, Catherine pours herself into the budding affair with Jackie, showing genuine care and concern for her well-being. Admittedly, certain moments had supple parent-child vibes, but I like to think of it as something unavoidable given the age and life experience gap. (Incidentally, I used to peel prawns for my ex and even my gal friends when we ate out so I don’t have issues with food-cutting for others.)
Meanwhile, as Catherine discreetly applies her psychology skills to mentally aid Jackie, I in turn wanted to urge Catherine; physician, heal thy self.
Throughout the film, Catherine presents a somewhat unflappable-untouchable personality, almost akin to an outcast. She affects an icy demeanor as a sanguine, poised professor who suffers no fools gladly and seemingly above repercussions. The general student response to her is either fear or awe, sometimes both.
Catherine is aware but nonetheless blase in her dismissal of her intimidating reputation or effect on others. She remains intrepid in her chosen independent lifestyle and in fact seems to shy away from any heavy-handed emotional handling in her life- whilst revealing the mention of the loss of her parents at 15, she packages any repercussions of the ordeal into a discomfort with flying and dispenses it with that.
When Jackie finally plucks up the courage to further question about Catherine and her lovers past; we are presented with the another side of her. The vulnerable, sensitive Catherine who is quick to read and discern her young companion’s issues, but coyly side-steps and hides her own.
Jackie: What happened to them?
Catherine: It ended. They left.
Jackie: Am I different?
Catherine: Would you believe me if I said yes?
Jackie makes no answer even as Catherine displays an air of resignation to the doubts on Jackie’s end. She seems genuinely sad but yet curiously reconciled in her incapacity to go further. It is almost like a seed of self-destruction has been sowed within her; choosing the ones who will leave, choosing to partake in affairs where there would be consequences to pay.
My favorite scene in the film takes place in the library; Jackie looks up Catherine in the library to obtain some feedback on her scholarship application essay and subsequently gets Catherine to explain her work; a paper based on the theory of the reversal of self-denial.
Catherine,”You know what denial is right? Okay, well, it’s like if you deny yourself something for long enough, for whatever self imposed reason, the moment that you’re faced with any real external imposition, you are going to voluntarily want to do the thing the thing you’re trying so hard not to do.”
Is she unknowingly talking about herself and her own abject fear of falling in love?
Whether Catherine would admit to it or not, she had already unwittingly allowed “Porcupine” Jackie to clumsily barge into her life. In the same scene, a bored and distracted Jackie in the library wheedles attention from a busy Catherine. Initially dismissive, then evasive, Catherine finds herself unable and unwilling to shut out her young lover and ends up putting down her work to cater to her. What is that, if not a little semblance of the thing called love?
Catherine’s deep attachment to her home also explains and represents the key conduits to many a turning point in the film. Her house, an inheritance from her deceased parents is her special place where she consigns comfort and thus able to drop her mask of composure and self-assurance.
It is to this same place she invites Jackie to immediately after the initial seduction and continuously features as the backdrop to where much of their burgeoning relationship unfolds. It is also there that Catherine confesses, for the first time to a sleeping Jackie how much she likes having over and that she loves her.
Sadly, the same house becomes a splintering point for the two when Jackie slights it during a quarrel, an insult which begets Catherine’s brutal knee-jerk response, and initiates the terminus of their romance.
And in the end, Bloomington is Jackie’s growing up story.
In due course of their engagement, Jackie learns to deal with the sadness of losing her best friend and manager, comes to terms with an uneasy relationship with her mother and even utilizes her university learning to negate a role back into her industry, recognizing her true calling.
It doesn’t go so well for Catherine. After the exposure of her affair with Jackie, Catherine is humiliated by an increasingly hostile student body then confronted with proof of her indiscretions; paparazzi pictures of Jackie who sought solace in her house after a fight with a classmate. Catherine is asked to leave by the end of the school year.
It seems a rather unfair punishment since there is no clear explanation on the basis of what Catherine is being made to leave for.
Having a relationship with another consenting adult? (You can’t really accuse her of subjugating the teacher-student trust; Jackie wasn’t her student in university.) Having a relationship with a girl? (I thought there were policies against sexual orientation discrimination?) And with evidence based on a black and white picture of Jackie visiting her home? (Couldn’t she have easily explained this as giving aid to a student-friend?)
The firing seems a particularly despotic way to chasten Catherine. For all of her romantic faux pas, Catherine’s popularity and work ethic as a lecturer is clear in the film. Even whilst in the throes of a new affair, she was constantly seen buried in her books or papers; her superior compliments her for having the longest wait list for her class and even the most disagreeable of Jackie’s classmates begrudgingly admitted Catherine’s teaching capabilities as they bartered other unsavory tales of her.
An academic to the finish line though, we see her running into Jackie at the library where the latter is returning her books, while she is there to pick up the latest copy of a work journal.
But I like to see her leaving as a progression rather than regression. The university had been her comfort zone and albeit forced by circumstances, Catherine appeared to be finally stepping out.
When Catherine invites Jackie over to her house for the last time after their chance meeting in the library, what looked like merely a concluding romp unfolds into a gentle, intimate scene where Catherine takes the chance to reassure Jackie that the fallout was not her fault and most importantly, that she does not hate Jackie for what happened.
Later, when questioned by Jackie about her future plans, Catherine admits that she does not know but maintains she will be fine. Jackie simply reminds Catherine that she has her number. There is so much left unspoken between the pair during this short exchange that it breaks my heart.
They embrace each other for the last time and Jackie leaves.
In the closing scenes, whilst packing up in her office, Catherine is informed by her assistant about Jackie’s interview outside. The scene cuts outdoors to Jackie answering the reporter’s last few questions. The scene cuts back to Catherine, who is now standing at the window, gazing out at Jackie. She watches quietly, gives an enigmatic smile to herself before quietly turning and leaving.
Similarly, after her interview, Jackie starts to leave but then turns around and looks up, towards Catherine’s office. She looks for a while, seeking something, someone.
Alas, there is no one at the recently emptied office, and after a beat, she too turns away to make her way slowly off campus on her last day, ending the film.
The romantic in me would like to consider the ending as optimistic. From their individual lingering looks back at each other, both Jackie and Catherine are not quite done yet. I see Bloomington as more than a coming of age story; it’s also a tale of two people who fell in love with each other against the odds, but are yet not quite at the right point of their lives to be together. As Jackie says in her interview about having taken a long way about and returning to acting after running away from it, “There’s no place like home.”
Both have further growing up to do in their respective ways, and in time to come (sequel please!) I might yet be able to watch Jackie and Catherine eventually find their way back home, back to each other and obtain the ever elusive happy ending.
For more info about the film, check out the official website for Bloomington, directed by Fernanda Cardoso.