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‘Cake’ explores the struggle of letting go

“Cake” (2014). Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington, Mamie Gummer, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Chris Messina, Lucy Punch, Evan O’Toole, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo, Camille Mana. Director: Daniel Barnz. Screenplay: Patrick Tobin. Web site. Trailer.

Holding on to what does not serve us can be fraught with difficulties. When it’s of a minor nature, it can be a nagging nuisance. But, when it’s of significant magnitude, it can disrupt our lives in countless ways. The search for how to handle this dilemma provides the basis for one of the most engaging releases of recent months, “Cake.”

Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston) is in a lot of pain, both physically and emotionally. The twin sources of her discomfort are obvious, too, but she focuses almost exclusively on addressing her physical distress, with her psychological anguish receiving little more than cursory attention. In fact, rather than dealing with the source of her emotional suffering, she instead escapes into a routine of denial and bitterness, relying on a treatment regimen of alcohol, prescription painkillers and unrelenting sarcasm in an attempt to quell her pain. By doing so, however, Claire puts off resolving her discomfort and simultaneously alienates those most able to help her heal, including her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer), her chronic pain support group facilitator (Felicity Huffman) and her estranged husband (Chris Messina). She even runs the risk of pushing away the one person who has remained unwaveringly faithful through her ordeal, her loyal housekeeper and caretaker, Silvana (Adriana Barraza).

On some level, though, Claire realizes that her current game plan isn’t working. She contemplates her options, some of which might seem quite extreme. One possible course – suicide – emerges when she learns of the self-inflicted death of one of her fellow support group members, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick). Claire mulls over the idea for herself, becoming morbidly fascinated with the particulars of her peer’s demise. In fact, she grows so captivated that Nina begins appearing to her in dreams and drug-induced hallucinations, engaging in both profound and silly conversations about the subject. But, by partaking in these surreal dialogues, Claire discovers she may not be as ready as she thinks she is to take that big last step. And, if she decides against that option, she must then wrestle with the big question of, “If not suicide, then what?”

While evaluating her options, Claire also becomes acquainted with Nina’s survivors, her husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), and son, Casey (Evan O’Toole). Through these interactions, she has an opportunity to assess the merits of carrying on – and seeing what happens to those left behind in the wake of a loved one’s suicide. So, while Claire contemplates the advantages and drawbacks of choosing death, she also has an opportunity to do the same with regard to pursuing life. The overriding question thus becomes, “What will she choose?”

As viewers watch Claire’s story unfold, the source of her physical and emotional pain is revealed slowly (though, from repeated images of her body’s many scars, it’s not too difficult to guess what happened). And, even though her physical distress is obviously quite substantial, her emotional pain is perhaps even more palpable. After all, as many advocates of alternative health care practices contend, physical maladies are rooted in emotional and psychological concerns. So, given Claire’s reluctance to deal with these issues, is it any wonder she doesn’t seem to get better? By ignoring the underlying cause of her discomfort, she’s unable to effectively treat its physical expression.

All of this draws attention to the crucial role our beliefs play in the manifestation of our life experience, the cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process. If Claire is content to cling to beliefs built upon foundations of bitterness, spite and despair, her lack of progress at getting better shouldn’t come as any surprise. Indeed, if she ever wants to turn things around, she will have to choose to embark on a different path, one supported by a set of new beliefs aimed at bringing her the relief and inner peace she seeks.

It’s interesting to note how Claire uses the law of attraction to summon individuals, situations and circumstances that enable her to examine both sides of the coin of life and death. Through her respective interactions with Nina, Roy and Casey, for example, she has an opportunity to see what fallout comes with the act of killing oneself, both for the victim and survivors. She thus gets a chance to address some important questions: Will suicide truly eliminate her pain? Will regrets arise if she follows through on such a plan? And what will happen to those left behind? Answers to these inquiries are pivotal to her decision about what to do – and how to rewrite the beliefs that make the materialization of a new reality possible.

Perhaps the most important question Claire needs to ask herself is why is she holding on to the pain? What is she getting out of it? And are the alleged benefits worth the energy and effort she puts into it? Might she serve herself better by letting go of whatever is keeping her mired in discomfort? But, if so, what must she do to realize a different outcome? And is she willing to do it?

How we respond to such challenges goes a long way toward determining what arises as a result. Perhaps it calls for us to step up to the brink to take a look at what our options might potentially entail. Perhaps it calls for us to get mad, to release the anger that’s keeping us locked in place and in pain. Perhaps it even calls for us to forgive ourselves for misperceptions of our own actions, outlooks rooted in “erroneous” beliefs. Or maybe it calls for some of all of the foregoing. Regardless of what it takes, however, we would be wise to take any steps necessary to realize the outcome of truly letting go – and letting a new and better future unfold for us.

Despite some rather obvious shortcomings (occasionally amateurish and clichéd cinematography and a narrative that sometimes wears its message on its sleeve), “Cake” is generally effective in telling its story and making its point. Claire’s acerbic wit works wonders in taking the edge off a subject that might otherwise be seen as unduly depressing, and the always-surprising interactions between the protagonist and her deceased apparition make the material lively and fresh. A fine supporting cast supplies additional color to the story, often in unexpected ways.

The real strength here, though, is Aniston’s remarkable performance. Even though the former television sitcom star has quietly distinguished herself as a dramatic performer in other lesser-known independent films (like “Friends with Money” (2006)), Aniston has truly established herself as a serious artist in this breakthrough role. For her efforts, she deservedly earned best actress nominations in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award contests. Regrettably, she missed out on capturing an Oscar nod, though her portrayal certainly is worthy of such an honor, easily one of the best female lead performances of 2014.

Letting go may not be easy, especially when faced with the uncertainty of what lies beyond what we already know (even if what we cling to no longer serves us). But holding on unnecessarily may prove to be even more damaging in the long run, preventing us from growing as individuals and depriving us of the potential benefits that await us by embracing change. We can only hope that, when faced with such circumstances, we have the wisdom and courage to see things through.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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