After spending time on the festival circuit, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s (Losing Isiah) adaptation of the 2004 Sarah Weeks novel So B. It is finally coming to cinemas near you. Though the rollout seems to be focused on a limited number of theaters (only two theaters in all of North Carolina will get it right now), more theaters are likely to show So B. It if audiences buy-in to this lovely family drama. Though the story is familiar and the plot points are fairly straight forward, So B. It manages to illicit genuine emotion through its creative narrative structure and engaging performances.
In Reno, Nevada, a young girl named Heidi (Talitha Eliana Bateman of Annabelle: Creation) lives in an extended apartment with her autistic mother So B. (Jessica Collins of Zero Dark Thirty) and their neighbor Bernadette (Alfre Woodard of Netflix’s Luke Cage). These three women take care of each other in surprising ways. So B. is full of love and delight, spending her time creating pieces of art. Bernie, as she’s called, serves as a kind of caregiver to both women, home-schooling Heidi and helping to care for So B. In turn, Heidi helps take care of duties around the apartment that Bernie can’t take on due to her shock-induced agoraphobia. Though Heidi’s life is filled with daily joys, an unexpected event inspires So B. to add a new word to her limited vocabulary: soof. Unable to discern a meaning, Heidi suddenly becomes aware of all the things she doesn’t know: things like where the rest of her family is, who pays her rent, or even when she was born. With new questions rattling in her mind, her usual joyful pursuits prove not to be aren’t enough anymore, setting Heidi on a journey of self-discovery.
It’s clear from the jump that So B. It will hit a lot of the narrative plot points many Young Adult book-based stories formulate their stories around: happy child of a mysterious background will undergo a life-altering experience and come out the other side evolved in a life-affirming way. On this, the Gary Williams-adapted script is largely predictable, which requires the surprises to come from other avenues and they do in spades. What begins as a fairly typical protagonist-narrated story with flash-forwards and flash-backs, evolves into something that uses time not just as a means of narrative conveyance, but also as a method of conveying Heidi’s journey from contentedly unaware of the world outside Reno to discovering the sharp reality of the world. Using time as a yo-yo that moves forward and back means that we’ll experience each experience of hope, heartbreak, and betrayal along with Heidi. The way this method is used mimics the way a young child would tell a story – jumping ahead, forgetting things, forced to go back, and then catching back up – which ends up being a perfect fit for a story about finding out who you are and the mess that comes the typically accompanies self-discovery.
Aiding in elevating So B. It above other trite family dramas are the wonderful performances that bring an unexpected depth to the unfolding adventure. Collins does an excellent job with So B., conveying the kind of blissful, almost child-like, excitement that an individual with severe autism may experience. Rather than devolving into parody, Collins is wholly believable in a role that’s minimal, yet essential to Heidi’s journey. Bateman herself is no slouch either, delivering an unabashed performance which carries much of the success of So B. It. While not award-winning, Bateman demonstrates enormous talent in her authentic depiction of a smart girl traveling cross-country on her own in search of her truth. Though the other cast members – Jacinda Barrett, Dash Mihok, Cloris Leachman (in a bit part), and the late John Heard – deliver heartfelt portrayals of individuals at different stages of their own life journey, the highlight for this reviewer is Woodard. She demonstrates remarkable depth whether through dialogue or movement, uplifting Bernie beyond the “desperate for a family” neighbor caricature into a fully-formed individual whose longing for family matches Heidi’s and who’s willing to go whatever lengths are needed to connect with them.
On the outside, So B. It is an examination of humanity’s need to know where we come from told through the one girl’s driving need uncover the mystery of her family. At its core, however, it’s a story about love. True, blissful, unadulterated, wholesome love. The kind that requires us to push beyond our fears to help others. The kind that connects families across state lines or continents. The kind that we all long for, strive for, and deem ourselves lucky when we find it. As Heidi tells us, in a word, love is soof.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.