Interviews / Movies

Genevieve Adams Falls Back in Love with Spirituality in “Simchas and Sorrows”

The film industry is still very much a boys’ club. Sensationalism is the primary route to being seen and heard as a woman. Actress, writer, and producer Genevieve Adams knows this all too well. “We deal with double standards and real discrimination when it comes to how and what we present on film – a lot more scrutiny and judgment,” she says. “We often feel we have to prove ourselves even more by doing outrageous things on camera or by being shocking. I’ve never been able to do that. It’s just not my style. Meanwhile, there’s a long tradition in independent movies of intellectual, more subtle, dialogue/idea driven films with neurotic leading male characters. Some of my favorites are Mike Mills, Joe Swanberg, Noah Baumbach, Ed Burns, Whit Stillman, and Ira Sachs. I’ve always been a fan of this kind of quiet indie filmmaking, where the lives of the characters are not overly dramatized – their vulnerabilities are put into perspective and don’t define them completely as individuals…you rarely see this kind of subtly comedic, idea driven, dialogue driven dramedy when it comes to female writers and directors, one because there are so few of us whose work gets to be made, and two because there’s a very real anxiety among those female writers/directors that I know who actually get to make their work of being seen as ‘delicate’ or ‘cute’ or ‘light,’ – somehow less ‘serious’ than their male counterparts, which just isn’t fair. I applaud, look up to, and thank those women who have started to pave the way forward for this, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Greta Gerwig, Nicole Holofcener, Sofia Coppola, Pascale Ferran, and Rebecca Miller. Thank God for these brave ladies. I believe our characters shouldn’t have to behave super badly or oversexualize themselves in order to get attention. We deserve attention as we are, and we can tell each individual woman’s story truthfully and people will find it interesting. Of course, there will always and should always be space for the shocking in cinema – but it’s not every woman’s story. I tried to convey some of this female desperation to be taken seriously in the film, while ironically making ourselves more ridiculous, with Agnes’ audition for the crack whore. As a woman, that’s the role she’s given. She takes it because she loves acting and the options for her are limited.” 

We are unfortunately still trapped in the molasses of patriarchy when it comes to advancing female filmmakers. It’s time to deconstruct tired formulas and allow fresh talent to take the stage. “The solutions are relatively simple, which is part of the reason it’s so frustrating that we still are where we are, in 2023 – hire more women, in front of and behind the camera. CAA proved that movies with female leads between the years of 2014-2017 made more money at the box office than those with male leads, so that false narrative about male stories making more money has been disproven many times now. I think the big players in the industry can start by giving us more opportunities, not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well. We all need to be more expansive in our thinking. The people at the top, especially, need to ask themselves: ‘Why am I giving certain filmmakers a chance, and not others?’ Why do we see so many of the same stories? Because the people in charge are risk averse. They want the easy path, but in movie making, as in life, nothing is a sure thing. We need to challenge ourselves, all of us, to be more creative. Let’s stop making so many sequels and think of new ideas – tell new stories. Audiences aren’t stupid, give them worthwhile content.”

Genevieve’s new film, Simchas and Sorrows, is a tribute to the awakening of her cinematic passion. “Simchas and Sorrows is a labor of love. Anytime you make an indie film it has to be, because it’s so difficult to do. I saw a film when I was in the fifth grade called Keeping the Faith and it really inspired me then and now. Ben Stiller plays a rabbi and Ed Norton is his best friend, a Catholic priest. They reconnect with a friend from childhood, played brilliantly by Jenna Elfman, who challenges them to question their faith. I thought it was such a funny, beautiful ,and heartfelt story about real people grappling with life’s unanswerable questions. It was one of those experiences in the movie theater where I was truly moved and thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to tell stories like that and make people laugh and think.’ Comedy is hard to do, and just because the story may seem ‘light’ or rom-com-y, doesn’t mean it’s less hard hitting. Sometimes those stories are able to disarm the viewer and get at some really difficult questions with even more humanity, because the laughter allows us to relax a bit, and draws us in. So, the goal with Simchas and Sorrows was to get at some serious dilemmas through a comedic lens. I want to entertain, and make people feel seen. I’ve learned from watching others that often the best way to do that is to write what you know. Movies have brought me so much joy throughout my life, and I want to pass it on and spread the love – ultimately, that’s my goal.” The story sprung from her prenuptial religious Odyssey as she wrestled with welcoming faith into her life. “The inspiration for the film began when my now husband Ben proposed to me – and suddenly his Jewish identity became a major part of the wedding planning conversation. I was startled at first, and a bit unsettled about the thought of dipping my toe back into anything religious. I went to Catholic school and was very skeptical of anything to do with organized religion. I realized as we went through the wedding planning process, how many other people relate to this – I heard stories from friends about couples almost breaking up over whether it’s a kosher or non-kosher menu, etc. I started to realize what a sensitive, dramatic, and comedic subject this is, especially in the Jewish tradition, since the religion emphasizes keeping the tribe alive (which means having Jewish children, which means the mother must be Jewish). All of this is to say – my husband signed us up for a class at a synagogue for couples embarking on similar journeys. There were lots of characters around that table, and at the beginning there were a lot of awkward moments as this unlikely group all got to know one another. In the beginning, I just thought this would be another one of my comedic sketches, and I started jotting down funny lines, and describing the characters in the class… but as we got to know each other better, the more profound, confounding questions surfaced, and I quickly realized I was writing more than just a sketch. There was a full screenplay here.”

In spite of Genevieve’s real life muses, her character Agnes ultimately walks her own path throughout the narrative. “My experience was a jumping off point. Agnes is her own character and while my story was definitely the initial inspiration, this story took on a life of its own, as screenplays do! Agnes often says the things I couldn’t say or didn’t feel bold enough to say. It’s fun and funny and also scary to imagine how situations can play out so differently if you say everything that’s on your mind, and not always for the best!” The film is a thoughtful introspection juxtaposed with our virulently bigoted social climate. “All of us involved in Simchas and Sorrows felt a particular urgency to tell this story right, and to tell it right now, as we struggle to metabolize the myriad threats that modern Judaism faces during this volatile, divisive, and distressing period in American history. The disturbing resurfacing of hate groups, and the troubling rise of anti-Semitism around the world, makes a story about coming together and acknowledging our shared humanity timely and necessary. Our characters grapple with controversy, including the conflict in Israel and Palestine, the widening gulf that exists between the Ultra-Orthodox and the broader Jewish population, and the intergenerational trauma that persists as a result of the Holocaust.”

Her son’s arrival served as a poignant exclamation point on the project. “It was a very creative time for me, so it kind of makes beautiful sense that the timing lined up like it did – profound on so many levels. I found out I was pregnant towards the end of the shoot, so he was really part of the whole journey, from the set to the editing room. The film premiered at Cinequest on April 7th, and he was born ten days later. His birth definitely reinforced for me the ideas we explore in the film. We all doubt ourselves and question things, and that’s a part of life. Nothing is certain, and that can make us afraid and angry. What’s constant, though, and what gives all of it meaning, is the love we feel for one another. If we put our energy towards taking care of each other while we’re here, we’ll be okay. Maybe even better than okay.” Genevieve has made peace with the fact that her own relationship with religion will be in constant flux. “As an artist, I’ve always had this impulse to challenge and question the status quo, and that’s a part of who I am that I’ve just come to accept. I’m never going to be comfortable following the herd. I will say, making this film and having my son has made me more open to exploring religion, and spirituality in general. It humbled me to rethink my skepticism and my overly academic way of looking at things. I think it’s arrogant to be completely confident in your beliefs. No one knows why we are here or what it all means. So, to be definitively against organized religion isn’t really useful. I found staying curious is a much better way to live. My husband and I hope to integrate the different aspects of our religious upbringings that were comforting and productive, and pass those things on to our son, and then let him decide how he wants to navigate his own spirituality as he discovers it.” Each of us must figure out our place in the universe.

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Genevieve Adams Falls Back in Love with Spirituality in “Simchas and Sorrows.” Photo Credit: Corinne Louie.