A yawning chasm of difference exists between seeing a bad movie and seeing a movie that you don’t connect with. It took me years to learn the difference, and it saddens me that there are people out there who will never learn the difference. For example, after Everything Everywhere All At Once won a metric ton of Oscars, I saw comments like:

  • “SUCH an overrated movie.”
  • “It was terrible.”
  • “More woke garbage* from Hollywood.”
  • “Why can’t they make movies people want to see?”

That last one is one of my favorites, and I think it gets to the root of the problem. Too many of us have stopped looking at movies as art and started to look at them as commodities. There’s a real sense of “the customer is always right” when someone considers their favorite franchise, a notion that the fans should be consulted when a movie is made. But they shouldn’t. Not really. 

As a viewer, your opinion is irrelevant. So is mine. The point of cinematic art, and this art encompasses everything from Shazam! to Schindler’s List, is for filmmakers to tell a story. To create a feeling in the audience. If you connect to that feeling, then the movie works for you. If not, then other films will. I’m telling you this because I saw Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes, a profoundly quirky Portuguese dramedy that certain viewers will connect to it in a serious way

Her name is Giraffe (Maria Abreu). Maybe it’s not her real name, but since she’s tall for a ten-year old and it’s the nickname her dearly departed mother gave her, it’s her real name. She’s trying to make sense of the world, a world that takes away mothers and gives bottomless sadness. Her father (Miguel Borges) is a struggling actor. He waits for a callback for a role in a movie. While he waits, he tries his best to be a father. The weight of his grief is so heavy, so much that it often crushes him.

Giraffe says she wants two things. The first is to do a good job on a school report about – what else? – giraffes. She devours knowledge, the definitions of words, factoids about animals. Is it a way to make order from a chaotic universe? A way to connect with a woman who is gone and a man finding a way to put himself together? Perhaps.

The second thing she wants is the Discovery Channel. Her father tells her the connection to the television is malfunctioning, but we know better. What’s a Giraffe to do? She consults her wildly profane teddy bear named Judy Garland (Tonan Quito). Judy Garland has a few thoughts. The first is that he hates life and wants to die. The second is that he wants a better name, like Chekhov, or Spartacus, or even Spartacus Chekhov. The third is that Giraffe should get up and do something about the Discovery Channel.

Giraffe agrees, and embarks upon an odyssey across the city of Lisbon to take it. On the way she’ll meet a Panther (Romeu Runa) who schools her about the concept of angry money, a cynical bank employee (Goncalo Waddington) who teaches her about advertising, and the Prime Minister (Tiago Gomes Rodrigues) who just might sign a law legally allowing her to rob a bank.

Director Tiago Guedes has made something that, if you squint, looks a lot like a Portuguese Wes Anderson movie. There are moments that feel like a living diorama, and quirky characters you’d never encounter in reality unless you were very unlucky. The difference between the two is that Guedes has made a more thematically focused film, one that shows an intelligent child gradually losing her childhood. The film has a pleasantly grungy indie vibe that’s assisted by sequences shot on Giraffe’s mobile phone. That creates a tone of magical realism expertly swinging between childlike wonder and real sadness. Is everything we see in the movie real? Giraffe sure thinks it’s all real, and that’s all that matters.

Sadness and Joy is adapted from a play by Tiago Gomes Rodrigues, and along with Guedes, he’s written a perceptive screenplay about a unique child grappling with grief and taking her first steps into adulthood. He does so with a string of encounters (Giraffe and a bitter parent, Giraffe and a rules-obsessed cop) that do two things so well. The first is the portrayal of duality, such as a young girl dealing with an angry old man. Each encounter creates conflict for Giraffe, and it’s clever to watch her navigate these unfamiliar moments. The second is that each encounter is a life lesson for Giraffe, and each one breaks off a large chunk of her innocence. It’s not meant to be cynical. Rather, Rodrigues and Guedes remind us that part of growing up involves the death of childhood, a process that stings for all of us.

For a film like this to work, the performances need to be calibrated just so. If they’re too understated or too broad, they risk breaking the movie. The only way a dry or wacky performance really works is with one actor functioning as the hub of the wheel. That hub is Maria Abreu as Giraffe. Lines about “the man who is her father” make her feel older than she is, yet Abreu still sells the innocent side, the side that has a teddy bear as a best friend. She’s part of a delightful comedy team with Tonan Quito as the filthy Judy Garland. Quito is so profane that the movie feels like it’s competing with GoodFellas to see who can drop the most f-bombs. He’s the personification of Giraffe’s sadness over the loss of her mother, the withdrawal of her father, and the inexorable pull of adulthood. With all that happening, it’s no wonder the only things Judy Garland can say are unprintable here.

To my mind, the strongest performance is that of Miguel Borges. Watch the sequence where he’s putting Giraffe to bed and seems to be somewhat possessed by the spirit of Giraffe’s mother. The performance whipsaws between a tender woman who wants her family to heal and a damaged man who has no idea how to pick himself up, much less adequately care for his daughter. On his own, Borges shows us multiple facets of a marriage and parenting team, and he does so with real emotional honesty.

Someone will read a review or see the trailer for Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. They’ll think, “Who is this for?” The answer to that question is simple and it’s never changed. A movie is for whoever sees it and engages with it honestly. For the right person, this movie is pure bittersweet magic.


*This from people who couldn’t define the term “woke” if they were held at gunpoint.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.