When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe difference between what this chronicle suggests it might be, and what it truly is, are night and day. Anna Sasaki (Hailee Steinfeld) is a 12 year old girl that has yet to find her place in this world. An orphan, she is being raised by loving foster parents Yoriko (Geena Davis) and her husband. Unfortunately Anna still suffers from the emotional scars of the past. “I hate myself” she cries out early on. Indeed she begins from a very dark place. Her reclusive state lends the narrative a grim context not often associated with animation. One day at school she collapses from an asthma attack. Her parents decide to have Anna spend the summer with her aunt (Grey DeLisle) and uncle (John C. Reilly) in Kushiro, a seaside town with fresher air. There she meets a mysterious girl named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka).

When Marnie Was There has similar national ties that sort of make it a spiritual successor to The Secret World of Arrietty, a 2010 Studio Ghibli film. The story also began as a British young adult novel.  This one published in 1967 by author Joan G. Robinson. Studio head Hayao Miyazaki had it among his recommended list of 50 children’s books. The same director of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, then adapted it with help from Keiko Niwa and Masashi Andō, into a movie of the same name.

When Marnie Was There is an extremely slow saga but I am reluctant to call it plodding. I admire the gradually unfolding nature of the drama. Its reflective nature allows the viewer to kind of luxuriate in its mood. This is a plot that earns its drama from the heartbreaking turmoil of a teen going through adolescence. At first you want to embrace Anna. She feels isolated and alone. Yet she isn’t beyond reproach for her current circumstance either.  Anna is rather nasty at times, calling one of her new friends a “fat pig” out of nowhere. However Anna responds differently to the beautiful blonde Marnie, a friend her own age who lives in the dilapidated mansion across the pond. Except it isn’t in ruins whenever she visits her. At night there are even parties where Anna is invited to attend disguised as a flower girl. “You look like a girl from my dreams” Anna confides in Marnie.  Does Marnie really exist or is she merely a figment of Anna’s imagination?

When Marnie Was There never fulfills on its grand promise of something profound. Anna and Marnie strike up a friendship and their interactions allow the previously withdrawn Anna to open up. The two frequently abscond away together in clandestine meetings that suggest a rapport that is far more intimate. It reaches an apex when a jealous Anna questions Marnie about dancing with a boy. You’re certain that something more will come of this. But nothing does. Later there is a scary interlude that resembles a Gothic tale involving an old abandoned silo that terrifies Marnie. More suggestions of something grander than what is actually presented. The denouement ultimately ignores all of these plot threads and settles into a resolution that doesn’t effectively address the issues with which this poor kid is struggling. She was really messed up and the reveal is totally disconnected from what this girl had been feeling. Sill, the picture is too visually hypnotic to ignore. The soundtrack, both the music and the sounds of the environment, create a lavish atmosphere that is spellbinding. I liked When Marnie Was There. I just didn’t love it.


15 Responses to “When Marnie Was There”

  1. Nice review. Sorry you didn’t love it but I still need to check this out as it’s Studio Ghibli. 🙂


  2. smilingldsgirl Says:

    As we spoke on twitter I loved it. The message of learning you are loved really moved me. I loved the mystery and looked at Marnie as more of a guardian angel than lover.
    We all have those moments where we are rescued and sometimes that can come from those who have passed on. It was a message of hope and friendship to rescue


    • It’s hard to explain my disappointment without revealing the ending, but let’s just say that it didn’t properly address the issues from which she was suffering.

      Incidentally her parents were shown to be loving, caring people so her feeling of being unloved rang hollow.

      I’m glad you were so touched by the narrative though. I wish I was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        I can see that. I think mental illness doesn’t always make sense. You can feel the emptiness and lack of love with no valid reason. She saw that her parents were being paid and that was enough to make her feel insecure. I’ve felt very empty in my life and to the world I had everything going for me.

        I look at the movie kind of like Field of Dreams. This person gets help to fill in the hole in their story (I don’t think that is a spoiler).

        Anyway, it’s all good. I’m glad you at least liked it on some level. Always good to hear different points of view.


      • smilingldsgirl Says:

        I guess I have a good friend who is Japanese and is adopted. She still considers her adoptive Mother her Aunt. So I suppose my experience with her and knowledge of Japanese culture helped explain Anna’s response.


  3. I saw that this is playing at the indie theater nearby. I for whatever reason couldn’t find the interest to go check it out. By the sounds of it my instinct served me well. 🙂


  4. To be honest, the story doesn’t sound too enticing to me but I think I’ll give this a watch eventually. Good review.


  5. Sounds like there are some interesting plot developments in When Marnie Was There that could have really gone somewhere. It’s disappointing to hear that nothing more comes of Anna’s jealous conversation with Marnie and that the film’s denouement ignores plot threads that it introduces. I’m not sure the visually hypnotic nature of the film and the atmosphere its soundtrack creates would help me overcome that frustration though.


    • After the comparative success of The Secret World of Arrietty & The Wind Rises I kind of thought anime would come into its own, but this disappeared without a trace.


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