On the surface, I Will Follow is a quiet story. It plays out in a single day, and the one-line abstract is essentially “a woman tries to empty a dead aunt’s possessions into a moving van.” But this is the narrative big-screen directorial debut for Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13TH). It was bound to have depth, complexity, and compelling interactions – and it did not disappoint.
The film opens with a flashback before vivacious Amanda (Beverly Todd, The Bucket List) loses her battle with cancer. “You’re second generation,” the elegant, aging lady shoots to her niece Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield, I Am Legend). “Joshua Tree Generation,” Amanda adds.
They are referring to U2 albums, a fact I quickly picked up on as a lifelong fan of the Irish rock legends. But more about U2 later.
After this fleeting interaction, the film flashes forward and we find Maye packing up her Aunt Amanda’s belongings.
There’s a lot to notice in this ostensibly simple film about grief and loss. There are hard, realistic parts – like the scenes between Maye and Amanda’s daughter Fran (Michole Briana White, Faster) where both cousins deal with pride, envy, mistrust, and fallout from Amanda’s death and life. Anyone who has had to divide possessions or examine the legacy of a deceased relative will feel a familiar pain in these wince-worthy scenes. The actresses do a great job representing how sensitive humans become during high-stress times. It’s such a raw, accurate look at the visceral regret and bitterness that comes after a death we weren’t ready for. The lashing out, the stinging words. It’s not for the faint of heart.
DuVernay, as the film’s writer, accomplishes a surprising number of rare feats with her characters. They are detailed and relevant in nuanced ways.
We discover that Amanda, the emotional centerpiece, was a highly regarded studio drummer in her youth: a sought-after, black, female musician in a world run by white men. She was the kind of woman who touched a thousand lives.
Two of Maye’s friends come to pay respects to Amanda – a gay couple Maye knows from her work as a makeup artist. They are not written for comic relief and their sexuality is neither a gag nor a point of principle; it’s a fairly insignificant footnote in a scene that feels more authentic than any Hollywood scene with gay characters that I’ve ever seen. The same feeling came upon me when a female TV technician came to uninstall the cable for the house. DuVernay isn’t attempting to make a point so much as to allow the characters to inhabit the screen as they would in real life.
OK so here’s where I want to come back to U2.
The movie is interspersed with flashbacks of Maye and Amanda discussing the band. They are both big fans. Amanda initially makes a big deal of the fact that she’s an “OG” – original generation. But Maye (who naturally fell in love with a later set of U2 albums) impresses Amanda with her knowledge of the band and devotion to their many albums, songs, and eras.
As a lover of U2, this made me smile. I came of age listening to U2’s 10th album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which was released a full thirteen years after “Joshua Tree.” And if I’m a third (or fourth?) generation fan, there are still others who are likely to have come after me since U2 continued to release albums that I’ve barely listened to.
None of this is about U2, of course. It’s about those precious few things in life that connect people of all ages, colors, and backgrounds. Sometimes it’s a love of music – perhaps embodied in a band that spans decades and creates a new generation of fans with each one. Sometimes it’s even more basic, though.
Grief connects. Memory connects. Sorrow, regret, and family connect. Love and selfless compassion connect us to each other, no matter our age or stage.