American pop culture is not comfortable with old age, and more specifically old age for women. It’s pretty adroit at navigating it’s way around the issue, with tweeness and irony and studious avoidance of certain scenarios. But Hello, My Name Is Doris has no patience for such evasion. It hunts that discomfort down, ties it to a chair, and goes at it with a hammer and tongs.
The title character is a consummate oddball. Doris (Sally Field) dresses like a working class kid from Staten Island circa 1980, and lives with her mother in the borough. She’s also a hoarder: during the opening credits, we watch her pick up some random vintage floor lamp from the side of the road, and cart it all over the city. The house she shares with her mom is packed to the gills with knicknacks, heirlooms, and god knows what else. Doris works a cubicle job in some design firm Manhattan, where she’s a holdover in the logistics division from before the company restructured. She’s far too shy to interact beyond the necessary minimum, and her younger coworkers regard her with a mix of befuddlement and benign contempt.
The plot kicks off when Doris’ mom passes away. At the funeral, her brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey) try to talk Doris into finally selling the house. Todd’s concern for Doris is genuine, but Cynthia clearly has dollar signs in her eyes. Doris turns them down, but does agree to start seeing a psychiatrist (Elizabeth Reaser) about the hoarding. She also goes with her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly) to see one of those gratingly positive motivational speakers, who switches “impossible” into “I’m possible.” Get it?
When Doris returns to work the next day, an overstuffed elevator literally shoves her into a meet cute with John (Max Greenfield). He’s the latest addition at the office: handsome, warm, friendly, in his 20s and disinclined to share his coworkers’ judgmental-ism. Doris is instantly smitten, and her desire to make a good impression is the impetus that kicks her out of her shell. In a delightful series of scenes, Doris brings John coffee, conspires to have him fix one of those ubiquitous exercise balls everyone in the office sits on, sets up a fake Facebook account to track John with the help off Roz’s daughter, and even starts listening to the same indie electronic band that he loves so she’ll have an excuse to wind up at the same concert.
Not surprisingly, her quest to win John over unintentionally becomes a journey of self-discovery. She befriends other fans of the band, is thrust into a hipster knitting circle, and to her astonishment, suddenly finds herself with friends and a social life. Field nails all of this, perfectly riding the line between Doris’ introverted instincts, her childlike joy at these new developments, and the overall lens of perspective and prudence age allows her to bring to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Roz is torn between her good-hearted love for Doris and her resentment of this sudden new development.
The script by Michael Showalter and Laura Terruso – based on her short film – plays all of this with subtlety while introducing surprising turns: The psychiatrist, who at first seems an imperious presence, becomes an unexpected ally in Doris’ development. In one of the best scenes, Doris gives full vent to her grief over the years she lost by caring for her mother while Todd went off to build an education and a life. Showalter and Terruso manage to simultaneously communicate that Todd genuinely wronged his sister but also sees the current impasse more clearly than she. Anyone who remembers that scene in the graveyard in Steel Magnolias will not be disappointed by Field’s craft and artistry.
As for Doris and John, they’re attraction is clearly genuine and mutual. Showalter also directs, and smartly avoids using other characters to comment on the specter of a romantic sexual relationship between a woman well into her 60s and a far younger man. Instead, Showalter allows the two characters to internalize society’s norms and its disapproval of any attempt to bridge the gulf. Scene by scene, he walks his characters up to that threshold and then crosses it. No one is blameless in what transpires next: Mistakes and failures of character and courage are made all around, and there are moments when the simple social and moral logic of what’s happening seems too much to bear.
If what I’m describing makes Hello, My Name Is Doris seem like a heavy affair, it’s nothing of the sort. The movie is quite light on its feet, helped along by Brian H. Kim’s creative score and the less-is-more editing by Robert Nassau. It’s even a film with a punchy running time of 95 minutes. When it was over, my only complaint was that it had passed too quickly and I wanted more.