By Monica Chen
Early on in “Rare Objects,” Katie Holmes’ third directorial foray, we see Benita, the protagonist, sitting on a subway. She is pale, and her hair is coarse and disheveled. She’s surrounded by people wearing masks, but she’s not wearing one.
Later, as Benita becomes confident and happy at her job, we see her with her hair up, wearing earrings and bouncing around running errands at work, reminiscent of Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Much later in the movie, after a big loss, she reverts back to being pale and dishevelled — but with the clothes of a working woman, not a college student.
Such attention to detail add up to a finely made film that shows great respect for the precarious journey people make from damaged and traumatized back to wholeness, and the family, friends and work that sustain them along the way.
Benita, played by Julia Mayorga in her feature film debut, is a college student who has just been released from a mental institution at the start of the movie. A counselor confirms for her that she had PTSD, and she had an abortion. Flashbacks tell us fully what happened to her. And the movie follows her, with patience and empathy, as she goes home, weighs whether to tell her mother, whether to go back to school, getting a job, making new friends, and so on.
All of this would have already made for a solid, good movie a decade or two ago. But in 2023, such emotional sensitivity and care for a protagonist’s journey is honest, daring filmmaking. “Rare Objects” is a gem. It has much to say about family, friendship — and art.
Many times over the course of “Rare Objects,” family and friends dispense sympathy and wisdom to Benita as she struggles with questions traumatized people often face as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives.
When Benita starts to panic about student loans, her patient and hard-working mother (Saundra Santiago) chides her: “You have to court good luck, reel it in slowly.” And she adds, “Just pray.”
As Benita struggles with moving on after a painful loss toward the end of the movie, the art buyer she works with (Derek Luke) goes to visit her. “It’s OK to let people in,” he says, giving her the push she needs.
There are many other instances of emotional truth and wisdom in this movie that used to be dispensed regularly in movies in the ’90s and on TV shows like “Full House.” “Dawson’s Creek,” which was Holmes’ break into stardom, probably trained her well in such storytelling.
Over the past decade, however, such caring and wisdom have been cast aside for witty one-liners and superhero swag. Superhero movies are huge entertainment and imaginative, but it’s refreshing and humane to see once again such attention paid to the interior life of a protagonist.
Mayorga plays the role of Benita thoughtfully, with a continuous tone of depression that the character struggles to break through for the entire movie. She has turned inward and peers at the world through her bangs cautiously. The depression and nausea waft off her, with little bursts of anger. She doesn’t rebel or throw fits, too responsible for that, being the only child of a single mother. Instead, she goes along, goes to work, writes in her journal.
We see Benita with her head down, literally and in life. She never resolves her trauma. The movie ends with us not knowing how she will do so or if she will ever go to the police. (Sometimes, victims work to get their lives on more solid footing and restoring their strength first, before going to the police.)
Holmes directs the movie in such a way that its tone reflects Benita’s state of mind. “Rare Objects” is filmed in a blue-grayish sheen throughout, and New York City in the movie is empty and windy. This is the New York of someone who is lost.
From time to time, the audience catches a glimpse of something that stirs our imagination and makes us wonder what else is going on in New York. Benita’s childhood friend, who helps her find her new job, swigs Chardonnay from a plastic bottle as she pushes her stroller, like a “Real Housewife,” she laughs.
Holmes also plays a young woman who becomes an important part of Benita’s life. She is the daughter of a wealthy family who is a much-desired customer at the shop where Benita works. “They don’t make appointments, and if they do, they never keep them. But if they buy from us, everyone will,” says Peter, played by Alan Cumming, the owner of the antiques shop where Benita finds a job.
Holmes’ character, Diana, right before the shop closes, suddenly comes in with her brother and Benita realizes this prized customer is the woman she taught how to knit a scarf at the psychiatric hospital.
In that moment, the audience wonders: What’s really going on in the socio-economic world of New York outside Benita’s recovery bubble?
There’s a lot going on out there that Benita can step into when she’s ready. And one scene that’s a great representation of how depressed people feel is when Benita lies in her bed, with her window open to the street and all the strangers walking by. Her childhood friend literally pokes her head in to say she needs to get herself together.
When you’re depressed, you’re exhausted in a dark room, with your window open, vulnerable to the world, but unable to participate in it.
Diana recognizes Benita at the antiques shop, buys two necklaces, and the two women become best friends. From there on, Benita comes to life more, going out for drinks with Diana, goes to parties at her house, and gets to know her deeper mental health problems. Very poignantly, Diana is the only one whom Benita tells what happened to her in the entire movie.
Holmes’ portrayal of Diana is as a sad, generous, vulnerable, and ultimately self-destructive person. There’s a lot that’s not shown about Diana. What is really going on between Diana and her family? Why did she fall back into drug use after seeing Benita dance with her brother? Why did her mother send her back to the mental hospital after she confronted her brother?
The audience doesn’t know. Tragedy strikes toward the end of the movie when it comes to the character. And you are reminded that often, on the road to recovery, you meet other people who are struggling as well, and sometimes, they don’t make it.
The question of what happened to Diana would take time for Benita herself to figure out.
“Rare Objects,” released on Friday, is the third movie Katie Holmes has directed, after 2016’s “All We Had,” and “Alone Together” in 2022.
Holmes’ potential as a director, and her acting abilities, was on display with “All We Had,” which had a stunning scene with Holmes’ character and her daughter stranded by the side of the road in the rain. “Rare Objects” is much quieter, and Holmes has focused her attention on the details.
It’s based on the book, “Rare Objects,” by Kathleen Tessarro, which is set in Depression-era Boston. Holmes has adapted it to contemporary New York. The main character in the book, Maeve, is an Irish immigrant. In the movie, she is a Hispanic young woman. According to IMDB, Tessarro also has a cameo in the movie as a customer at Peter’s shop.
Watch “Rare Objects” for the careful, wise choices it makes in portraying recovery from trauma, and also, surprisingly, for the statement it makes about art: When it comes to life and when it comes to art, integrity is important in both.
Peter, the owner of a small antiques shop that’s filled with rare objects from history and art, shows Benita a small vanity table and describes it, showing how much he cherishes every piece. The desk was owned by Mozart’s sister, he says, “sat in the same room day after day as the world’s greatest composer learned his scales.” And Peter, for himself, also has pain he can’t quite resolve. His partner died nearly two decades ago, but his grief never ends.
The shop is sourced by Winshaw (Luke), who brings rare objects from around the world to Peter. And Winshaw has his own integrity and approach to the art world, chastising Benita at one point for mis-representing a painting to a customer.
“No one wants a painting symbolizing decaying morals and prostitution in their dining room,” Benita says, embarrassed. “Art is honest,” Winshaw retorts.
(Spoiler alert) It is through art that Benita finds any resolution at all. Peter mentions at one point the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which is repairing broken pottery with gold, making them stronger than before. After Diana’s tragedy, Benita picks up the pieces of a small bowl her mother had broken, and using skills she learned at the shop, puts it back together.
The small, delicate bowl becomes a symbol for her strength of will to be whole. It is Benita’s own “rare object.”
If anyone is wondering about Holmes’ skills as a director, watch the rain scene in “All We Had” and this scene in “Rare Objects” to the end of the movie. She treats Benita’s story with profound empathy, and the ending is a soft climax of feelings that anyone who has been hurt and finally starts to recover would recognize.