Benita (Julia Mayorga), the young woman at the center of Rare Objects, the third feature film directed by Katie Holmes, has undergone transformative trauma. In the film’s opening moments, she is released from a mental institution where she was dealing with PTSD; A series of charged flashbacks show us what happened to her. In Manhattan, where she was a college student majoring in economics, she was approached at a bar by a seemingly nice guy who was having a drink with her, and as she went to the restroom, he attacked, pushed her inside, and sexually assaulted her at .
She emerges from this crime as the shell of her former self, and Holmes shoots the rape so we can see how shock and horror can erode someone’s identity. Benita, coming out of the hospital, shows up at her loving but quietly strict mother’s (Saundra Santiago) home in Astoria and tells her she’s taking a break from school; she says nothing at all about what happened to her. She will continue to say nothing – to anyone. Stepping back out into the world in search of a job, Julia Mayorga acts with a wary, resentful caution that addresses the trauma that Benita doesn’t speak out loud, and we expect the film will be about how she is confronted with crisis.
It is, but not what you expect. We register the pain beneath the surface, but more often than not we see that under Benita’s attempt to be confident enough to make ends meet, Benita won’t commit to anything — to what she wants to do, to this friend, to this attraction. The film doesn’t commit itself either. Based on the novel by Kathleen Tessaro, it’s made up of little things that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. That’s because it was conceived as a series of actor moments that you capture when they’re vivid enough (and there are some terribly good actors here), but that could have used a lot more cohesion.
Despite her lack of experience, Benita lands a job at a posh antiques dealer. Peter (Alan Cumming), the exuberant dandy who owns the house, has strict standards in everything, but he’s a very sweet man, and he reacts to how Benita, after she’s done her homework, reacts to the rare objects that he offers for sale. As someone who works with the store’s high-end clients, she must be a hostess, an art and design historian, a speaker, and a hard-nosed saleswoman who knows how to close a deal. As appealing as a setting for a film is, I couldn’t help but feel the premise couldn’t be fully analyzed. If Benita is hiding from the world, why would she choose a job like this? presentationone where she naturally walks on eggshells?
There’s a flashback to her time on the station hanging out with an heiress who heard voices in her head. And then, as Benita prepares to greet some fancy customers at the store, the customers come in… and one of them is heiress Diana (played by Holmes) along with her brother James (David Alexander Flinn). They are the children of a famous painter and Diana wastes no time in rekindling her camaraderie with Benita; the two become friends. Holmes’ performance has a joker element that the rest of the film could have used more of – her Diana is a captivating alcoholic prodigal, captivating but destructive, often at the same time as she doesn’t realize what a freak she is.
Rare Objects chronicles Benita’s relationship with this cautionary tale; starring Peter, a gentle soul suffering from trauma of his own (much as I love Alan Cumming, I winced a bit when he drowns his sorrows in martinis while reminiscing about the partner he lost 19 years ago; sorry, but you want to say “move on”); with Diana’s brother, whom the film posits as a romantic prospect; and with Peter’s partner in the antique shop, Winshaw (Derek Luke), who looks like he might be one other romantic perspective that is rather confusing because the film itself seems confused about it.
The confusion is symbolized in its own way by the pink cup – a memento of Benita’s mother – which breaks, symbolizing how life itself breaks and we have to put it back together. At the antique shop, Peter refers to a Japanese belief: that the cracks in a vase become part of its value and actually make it more valuable. The same applies to us, the film suggests, when we are broken inside. But as compelling as this metaphor is, it’s hard to miss how the shards of this particular mug are constantly changing. At first glance, there seem to be about a dozen. If the pieces are on a table in the antique shop, it’s closer to 40 pieces, some of them almost dust. When it’s finally assembled, the cracks in the repaired cup make it look like it broke into maybe six pieces. We were supposed to be relocated, but all I could think was, “Where was the continuity person?”
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