Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2015, PG, 103 minutes, $24.99 When 12-year-old foster child Anna Sasaki collapses at school from an asthma attack, her long-time foster mother sends her away from the big city of Sapporo to Kushiro, a rural area where the foster mother’s family lives. Although she has been sent to Kushiro to recover her physical health, Anna finds answers that have been plaguing her peace of mind, and she also meets Marnie, a friend with a very mysterious past. The Adoption Connection Anna is being cared for by Yuriko, who she alternatively describes as “my mother,” “Yuriko,” “my guardian,” “auntie” and “my foster mother.” Anna has been living with Yuriko and her husband for seven years. Anna has learned that Yuriko receives money from the government for serving as a foster parent – however, Yuriko does not know that Anna knows. Anna is torn apart by this knowledge, wondering whether Yuriko actually loves her. At one point, when Anna is sick, she apologizes to Yuriko for “costing you money again.” This baffles Yuriko, but it shows that Anna struggles with knowing whether she is actually loved. Yuriko talks to a doctor about Anna. Yuriko notes that Anna does not show her emotions. She wonders aloud, “Maybe it’s because we’re not related by blood.” When in Kushiro, Anna is convinced by her foster aunt and uncle of Yuriko’s love for her, and by the end of the story, Anna appears to accept Yuriko as her mother. Anna also learns the story of how she came into foster care, and quite a bit about her birth family’s history. (Major Spoiler Alert — the rest of this section contains major spoilers.) Anna reluctantly identifies herself as a foster child. She explains, “My real parents died when I was little, my grandma too. I know they didn’t die on purpose, but sometimes I feel I can’t forgive them for leaving me alone.” Anna sees an abandoned house across a marsh which is strangely familiar to her. While exploring, Anna meets her mysterious friend, Marnie. Marnie and Anna share their stories with each other, and they find comfort in each other’s understanding. Marnie is actually a ghost, but she is also Anna’s birth grandmother, returning in the form she had when she was a girl of Anna’s age. Anna learns Marnie’s story, and from Marnie, finds out how she herself came to be in foster care. Although it is a story with significant sadness and loss, there are also notes of joy, perseverance and determination. After she knows her story, Anna is much more at peace. Anna’s words to Marnie might echo the feelings of people separated by adoption, saying at one point, “You left me behind… I won’t forgive you, leaving me behind without a word… Why did you betray me?” and at another point, “I missed you — I kept calling you with my heart… I’ll never forget you,” and ultimately telling her, “Of course I forgive you. I love you, and I won’t forget you.” Marnie was neglected and abused as a child. Anna and Marnie both envy each other — Anna envies Marnie for growing up with her birth family, and Marnie envies Anna for living in a safe, loving home with kindhearted people. Recommendations What an emotional experience this film is. Some aspects of “When Marnie Was There” might make it too scary, or too slow, for young viewers. It seems like a better fit for kids ages 11 and older. There is a lot of relevance to foster care and adoption. Anna does not look like the other kids around her — her eyes are blue, “like a foreigner,” while her peers all appear to be Japanese. Kids who have been adopted cross-culturally may resonate with this. Anna also wonders about the meaning of the fact that her guardians receive money for her care. This could be a real concern for many kids in foster care, or adopted out of foster care, or for people who question the role of money when it’s connected to care or adoption. The film’s message is, “we do receive money to help us take care of you, but it doesn’t change the fact that we love you.” It could be a helpful tool in having that conversation with your kids, if this is something that they’ve been (perhaps secretly) wondering or worrying about. Finally, the film highlights the importance of honesty. Anna feels so much better and so much freer after she knows her own history and also after Yuriko openly talks with her about the issue of financial reimbursement for foster care. I’d recommend this one for kids age 11 and older, as well as for adults who are involved in adoption or foster care. It’s a good one for adults and kids to watch together or for adults to watch alone. Questions for Discussion How do you imagine Anna felt when she was sent away to Kushiro? What places are important to you, before you came here? Why is it sad to be in foster care? Why might it be sad to not have been taken into care? How can someone achieve a full, integrated acceptance of their own life? — Addison Cooper, LCSW, reviews movies for foster and adoptive families on his site, Adoption at the Movies at www.adoptionlcsw.com. Find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AdoptionAtTheMovies. Addison is a clinical supervisor at a foster care and adoption agency in Southern California.
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