Originally written for the stage, Marjorie Prime tells the story of multiple generations of the family of Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman with dementia. Her companions over the years range from two separate dogs named Toni-with-an-i, a caretaker who lets her sneak cigarettes (Stephanie Andujar), her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law John (Tim Robbins), and a holographic avatar of her late husband Walter (John Hamm), appearing as he did in his younger years. At the start of the film, Marjorie’s “Prime,” the avatar of Walter, is still learning from her. He helps her with his dementia: providing companionship, reminding her to eat, and recounting (and editing when asked) stories of their past together when Marjorie can’t remember. Tess is disturbed by his presence and his appearance, but John convinces her of the program’s value. When Marjorie dies, Tess gets a prime of her own in the form of Marjorie to deal with her grief. And so a cycle is created, one that echoes and ripples into eternity.
This is a deeply somber and introspective film, a poignant meditation on the nature of what we call memory and how we define it as an objective history as well as how, at its core, “memory” is ultimately both fallible and malleable. As Tess points out in the film, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.
If you search for the film online, it’s defined as a drama/mystery, but that’s not entirely accurate. There is a dark family secret that slowly unscrolls and unspools over the course of the movie’s runtime, recounted in different ways by different people (some of whom aren’t people at all), but it’s not a mystery that you want to solve. The characters in the film don’t want to remember, and that affects the viewer as well; once you know the truth, you remember that the urge to expunge is often as powerful as the urge to record, that the desire to remember is counterposed by all the things we wish we could forget.
Marjorie Prime is at turns celebratory and solemn, weaving back and forth through different perspectives and memories that seem at times false and sometimes too real, and occasionally both. The direction is organic, and the audience is drawn into the film naturally, as if you are in the living room with Tess and Marjorie as they discuss Tess’s own daughter, Marjorie’s memory of the night that Walter proposed, or going to get Toni-with-an-i 2 from the pound in “the old Subaru,” and how the more time passed the more Toni 1 and Toni 2 became the same dog in Marjorie’s memories. The deft hand of subtlety is felt throughout, be it in evidence of recurring musical talent among the women in the family (Marjorie the violinist, Tess the pianist, and the unseen blue-haired Reyna and her band), or in the way that the passage of time is reflected by the appearance of new lamps and other furniture, or in the film’s final moments, which have a distinct “There Will Come Soft Rains” vibe. It’s a story that will follow you all the way home and get into bed with you, and you’ll appreciate the companion for as long as it will let you, before it too passes into the unending waves of time that erode away memory as surely as the ocean obliterates footprints in the sand.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond