Author: Mike Ellis & Pam Falk
Writer’s Potential: 8
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Mona explains that her DAD told this fairy tale to her and her friends on her 10th birthday. Everyone at the party is disarmed and disturbed by this story. Mona continues to explain: Dad was a track star in college, then became a successful dermatologist at the Blue Hospital, a huge facility so named because of its blue-glass windows. Her MOM was a tourism official. At a young age, Mona showed a talent for math, which her parents encouraged even though they didn’t fully understand it. Mona and Dad raced frequently, until one day, he just gave up. After this, Mona became a quitter, quitting everything except track and math. She became a track star, with the hopes that it would bring Dad back, but when it didn’t, she quit that, too. When she met a guy she liked, Mona would eat a bar of soap, then feel queasy and leave.
At age 22, in the present, she walks through a park and knocks on each tree. She continues to explain in voiceover that the only thing she never quit was math. As Mona continues through the park, mathematical numbers and equations pop up over the active scene. Mona walks to her parents house to discover Mom has decided to kick her out. All of Mona’s possessions are packed and sitting on the lawn. Instead of leaving, Mona hops into her bed and spends the night there. Meanwhile, Mom gives Dad his daily pills, which he sticks inside a couch cushion (along with a plethora of other pills).
The next morning, Mona wakes up with mosquito bites all over her body. As Mom helps put on calamine lotion, she explains that they have enough to help Mona get an apartment and swing the first month’s rent. Mona wonders how she’ll know if something happens to Mom and Dad when she’s not home. Mom offers Mona their answering machine. Mom finds an apartment for Mona. Mona walks through each box-filled room, saying her name. Some time later, Mona receives a call from MS. GELBAND, principal of Mona’s old elementary school. They need a new math teacher, and Mom put in the good word. Before Mona can refuse the job, Ms. Gelband tells her to start Monday and hangs up. Mona is furious with Mom but has no choice — after all, she needs a job.
As Ms. Gelband shows Mona around the school, they bump into BEN SMITH, the young science teacher. Ms. Gelband flirts with Ben, but Ben seems more interested in Mona. When Ms. Gelband shows Mona the math classroom, Mona flashes back to herself, at age 9, being taught by a man named MR. JONES, who places wax numbers around his neck to indicate his mood — as Mona explains to Ms. Gelband, higher numbers indicated better moods, lower numbers worse. Ms. Gelband wonders how she knows so much about Mr. Jones; Mona grew up living next door to him. Ms. Gelband leaves Mona alone, and she redecorates the classroom in an eccentric style featuring numbers as objects of nature.
Mona begins teaching. She doesn’t like the first- or second-graders, but the third-graders are different. Mona’s introduced to the entire third-grade class, but the most important here are LISA VENUS, offbeat and sloppily dressed, and ANN DeVANNO, the bully. They’re all pretty amazed by her classroom decorations, and they’re all eager to learn. She makes each student choose a favorite number, then picks a few of them to come up to the front of the class to make a human equation. Ann thinks it’s stupid, until Mona offers to let her be the “plus” sign. After awhile, Mona’s at a loss for what to do, but she catches sight of tree branches outside that look like a “4.” She tells them to start bringing in natural materials that form the shape of numbers.
Mona goes to her parents’ house and is horrified to see her father standing in the backyard, having mowed a “Shape of Health” into the grass that he must stand in to stay healthy. The next day at school, Mona’s in the teacher’s lounge when Ben comes in. He tries to flirt with her, but she won’t say a word to him. Ms. Gelband comes in and chastises Ben for an assignment he gave for half his science class to say nurturing things to houseplants and the other to say abusive things. Mona’s a little intrigued.
Lisa brings in the first “Numbers and Materials” object: a used IV in the shape of a 0. Everyone’s excited by this except Ann, who taunts Lisa. Later, Ben catches Mona spying on his science class. Hiding, she runs in to Lisa and asks where she got the IV. Lisa explains that her mother has cancer and makes Mona guess what kind of cancer. Mona guesses wrong, so Lisa tells her it’s eye cancer, that she’ll die in less than a year, and that Lisa likes pirates. She begs Mona not to get sick. This prompts another flashback — Mona recalling her father’s giving up, which led her to begin knocking on wood when she couldn’t handle stress.
Now it’s Mona’s 23rd birthday. Mom calls to sing to her and invite her out to dinner. At the restaurant, Ben runs into Mona and her family. Mom immediately tries to make a love connection, which makes Mona so uncomfortable that she leaves. She goes to the hardware store next door, which is run by Mr. Jones, who still wears wax numbers. He argues with a tool salesman. Seeing Mr. Jones prompts another flashback: as a kid, she was the only one who figured out why he wore the numbers. He was proud of her ability to notice, but when Dad got “sick,” Jones didn’t notice, which angered Mona enough to treat him badly and egg his car every Halloween. In the present, Mona buys herself a birthday present: a huge ax. She has a dream of chopping herself in the ankle with the ax. Lisa appears, asking her why she did that. Mona wakes with a start and puts the ax in a moving box.
The next day, Mona arrives at school and panics because all the kids are acting ill. Turns out, Ben assigned them each disease symptoms to help them with a science unit. Mona finds Lisa feigning the symptoms of cancer, which saddens her. In math class, Mona displays her Numbers and Materials object — the ax, which she has hung over the blackboard to indicate a “7.” The kids are impressed. She teaches them inequalities, which quickly turns from numbers into things like “SICK > CAR CRASH.” This provokes an argument about various ailments, and Mona loses control of the class. One of the students pees at her desk. After class, Ms. Gelband arrives but doesn’t appear to notice the violent inequalities written all over the blackboard, or the ax hanging from the ceiling, or the urine puddle. She tells Mona how great she’s doing and reminds her to come to Parents’ Night.
At Parents’ Night, Mona meets Lisa’s apathetic, verbally abusive aunt. Mona goes to get some air and runs into Ben. She chastises him for the illness-faking assignment and asks about Lisa. He’s not concerned. Upset, Mona leaves. The next day, during recess, Mona confesses to Lisa that Dad is sick, to increase the bond between the two. Lisa asks disturbing questions that make her realize Dad’s illness isn’t that bad. Lisa asks to move in with Mona, but Mona says that would be unfair to the other students. They bump into Ben, whom Mona ignores.
After school, Ben finds Mona in her classroom. He follows her home, Mona knocking trees along the way. He says he’s going to a movie but that she’s not invited. She changes the subject to Lisa’s aunt, but Ben changes it back to the movies. They pass Mr. Jones, whom Mona is surprised to see zipping along happily with a #42 around his neck — the highest she’s ever seen. Mona and Ben end up at the movie theatre, and they flirt through the movie, to the consternation of the man behind them. Mona suddenly freaks out and rushes home to check her answering machine — one message, from a travel agent.
Ben’s at the door to her apartment. She reluctantly invites him in, and after more flirting, he kisses her. Mona excuses herself to go to the bathroom, then eats a bar of soap and tells Ben to go home. The next day, Ann presents her Numbers and Materials — Mr. Jones’s #42. Mona knows Ann stole it, but Ann vehemently denies it. Mona snatches it from her and Lisa offers to go with her and return it, if Mona will go with her to the Blue Hospital to see Lisa’s mom. Mona agrees, but when they get to the hardware store, Mr. Jones is nowhere in sight. Worried, they continue to the hospital. LISA’S MOM looks terrible. She sends Lisa out of the room, and she and Mona have a heart-to-heart about Lisa’s absent father. When Lisa’s Mom is gone, she’ll have no one but her abusive aunt.
Walking home, Mona finds a bunch of Mr. Jones’s numbers, on a trail leading back to his house, but he doesn’t answer the door. Mona asks Dad about it, but he’s in the middle of pouring gasoline on his Shape of Health and lighting it on fire. Mom extinguishes the flames.
In class, all hell breaks loose: one student brings in his father’s fake arm as a Numbers and Materials, and the father chases him around the class to get it back. Meanwhile, Lisa grabs Mona’s ax and starts smashing up the room because her mother died. She threatens Ann with it. Mona intervenes, but she’s distracted by Ms. Gelbard, and Ann grabs the ax. She cuts Lisa’s face and jams the ax into Mona’s ankle. At the hospital, Mona and Lisa compare their stitches. Lisa confesses that she noticed Mona’s knocking habit and wants to be just like her, especially now that she’s all alone.
At Lisa’s Mom’s funeral, Ms. Gelband fires Mona for lying about having a college degree. Mona goes back to her apartment to brood and sees Mr. Jones’s wax numbers all over the living room. She goes to Mr. Jones’s house, but he still doesn’t answer. She climbs in through the window — and finds Mr. Jones having sex with the TOOL SALESWOMAN. He’s horrified and enraged and wonders why Mona would even care, since she was such a mean little girl. Mona says she was only mean because he didn’t care about her when Dad got sick. Mr. Jones refreshes her memory, saying he did ask and she must have forgotten. It also causes her to realize that all this fear caused by her father’s “illness” was misplaced, since deep down she doesn’t believe he’s sick.
Mona finally unpacks and decorates her apartment. Ben shows up with a note from Mona. They make love. Some time later, Mona receives a package from the third-graders — a card saying “NO MS. GRAY < MS. GRAY.” Mona’s touched. She goes to Lisa’s Aunt’s house, and the aunt complains that she doesn’t want Lisa anymore. Mona does. Mona uses another student’s attorney parents to threaten Ms. Gelband over the ax incident — she gets her job back and the school will pay for her night classes until she gets a teaching certificate. With Mona and Lisa now together, Mona tells Lisa a variation on the fairy tale Dad told at the beginning.
It falls apart, however, with the excruciating level of quirkiness from each and every character. Nothing against quirky characters — all people have their quirks — but there’s a very thin line between “cute and eccentric” and “scary and psychotic,” a line that An Invisible Sign of My Own obliterates. Mona is not a fun, cutesy character — Mona is frightening, especially since the plot lets her loose around children. Whatever sympathy is generated from the “trigger” of her disorder¬¨ — her father’s “illness” — is undone by the fact that she spends the rest of the story acting like an unchecked lunatic. Despite the background information she gives us, Mona is as closed off to the audience as she is to the characters in the story. We understand she has these problems, we understand (to some degree) what caused them, but we don’t understand why nobody seems to notice/care or why Mona has not done anything help herself. If she was about 80% less kooky, this wouldn’t seem quite so much like a serious psychosis. It becomes even more problematic when we’re expected to believe that a minor epiphany turns off all her problems like a light switch.
Mona’s the character we spend the most time with, but she’s not the only eccentric around. Mr. Jones’s mood-indicating wax numbers around the neck? Dad’s unchecked hypochondria? Ben’s unorthodox — to put it politely — teaching style? Some are stranger than others, but these characters quirks aren’t as endearing as the writers seem to think they are. The only one who tugged at my heartstrings was Lisa, whose childhood innocence and home situation makes her cancer obsession and unnatural love of Mona relatable. It’s unfortunate because, if you drastically reduced the number of odd qualities these characters have, they and their struggles are as complex and relatable as Mona’s. They’re just far too ridiculous to gain any sympathy.
It seems like it wants to appeal both to family audiences and 20-something “indie film” fans, but it misses the mark on both accounts — the irreverent and irresponsible messages (i.e., OCD can be cured quickly and easily, children in desperate situations will have loving teachers to adopt them) will drive away families, and the unsettling nature of these “quirky” characters will keep others away in droves. A comedy that could be described as “A Beautiful Mind meets Juno” might sound good on paper, in terms of both “prestige” and box-office receipts, but it will likely alienate its already-limited potential audience. Fans of the source novel may want to see it, though, as my limited search suggests that it’s a faithful adaptation.
Posted by D. B. Bates on September 26, 2008 5:10 PM