“Why Do You Have to Carry the Burden of Someone Else’s Life?”

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) is a small, powerful, brilliantly-acted gem of a film. It tells the story of a family of four, the Popes, who have been living as fugitives for fifteen years, wanted by the FBI following the parents’ bombing of a napalm lab, an act of protest against the Vietnam War that inadvertently wounded a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be there. Perpetually on the run, changing locations and identities several times a year, the family has found a way to survive that mostly works for them. But their oldest son Danny (River Phoenix) is now seventeen, and in love with a girl (Martha Plimpton), and attracting the attention of places like Julliard with his musical gifts. It’s clear he needs to break free from his family—and the only kind of life he’s ever known—if he is to have any hope of building a future for himself, but both he and his parents struggle mightily with the weight of what that means for all of them. It’s a film that looks deeply at family, love, and commitment; at relationships and parenting and the interpersonal dynamics that sustain us; at the choices we make and the way those choices echo throughout our lives.

Sheila O’Malley is one of the most intelligent, illuminating film writers working today. We’ve been fortunate enough to have her contribute a few essays to Bright Wall/Dark Room over the years, and when I found out she was as big a fan of Running on Empty as I was, I knew we had to find a way to talk about it. So, one morning near the end of last month, we both cleared our schedules out for an hour or so to send a series of emails back and forth to each other, discussing the film and what it’s meant to us over the years. What follows is a transcript of that conversation (with some links added in later to provide additional context). Oh, and if you haven’t seen the film, be forewarned: spoilers abound—though the film is 28 years old at this point, so maybe don’t worry about it.

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Chad Perman: I’m so happy that we’re finally able to make this happen, Sheila! Running on Empty is a film we both love so much, and have been talking about talking about for months now, ever since you reached out to me last August about it. Life got in the way for a bit, and then we couldn’t find an issue that it made sense to talk about in, but once we decided to go with “identity” for this issue, I knew it was time to finally figure out a way to make this conversation happen. There’s so much to talk about – identity, family, growing up, parenting, the choices we make, THE MUSIC, Sidney Lumet in general – but I thought we could maybe start by talking about how we both first came to the film, and our respective journeys with it over the ensuing years. When did you first see Running on Empty?

Sheila O’Malley: I saw it in its first release in the movie theatre. I was an enormous Sidney Lumet fan—seeing Dog Day Afternoon when I was 12 got me hooked on acting—as well as a huge River Phoenix fan. I remember that first viewing vividly: it was an emotional onslaught, which really starts with the scene between Christine Lahti (Annie Pope) and Steven Hill (playing her father), and then flowing on towards the end. The rest of the film is rather gentle in its approach—intelligent, low-key, humorous, with eerie undertones of unease … but once she meets up with her dad, there’s no going back.

CP: That’s an amazing scene in so many ways.

SOM: I couldn’t breathe watching that scene. It still affects me that way. I’ve seen the film many times since then, and much of what worked for me the first time continues to work: the scene where the family and Lorna (Martha Plimpton) dance to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” as they clear the table (a scene with no cuts! 5 people in the frame at the same time. One shot!), the brief scene where Artie (Judd Hirsch) questions his son about the relationship with Lorna, the chilling scene between Annie (Lahti) and Gus (L.M. Kit Carson), her old revolutionary buddy coming back to call in a favor. These are all excellent scenes. There are some political nuances that I hadn’t picked up on in my first viewing, the critique of the revolutionary Left that is there, but in general, I still think it’s an extremely powerful family drama. Overpowering, near the end.

For me, one of the key lines comes from Annie, when Gus asks her how she manages to keep the little suburban life going. She says, with a smile, “I’m a good liar.”  And she is. World-class. Danny (River Phoenix) says the same thing later to Lorna, when he comes clean. The traps in lying about who you are is a huge theme in the film, and it’s evident in every character, not just Artie and Annie. They all have to struggle to be who they actually are.

CP: That’s very true, and a great point. You actually bring up so many things I already want to dig into and talk about—it looks like many of our favorite moments overlap, which maybe isn’t that surprising—but let me start where you did, with my own experience with the film over the years.

I’ve seen Running on Empty more times than I can remember, and it still never, ever fails to move me to tears in its final moments. I first saw it with my parents, on VHS, a few years after it was released, and it still reminds me of them somehow, or at least that feeling I had of watching it with them back then. Especially my mom, though I couldn’t say why exactly. I was already a River Phoenix fan—I think this came out the same year as another spy-ish film he did (Little Nikita), and of course I knew him from Stand by Me as well. But I knew, even back then, that this movie was something else entirely, and I loved everything about it, even the parts I probably didn’t understand all that well. I was 11 or so, and remember trying to imagine what it would be like to be living on the run like that, changing identities all the time, never being able to get close to anybody, just being this really solid unit of four. I had some experience with this – my parents weren’t fugitives and we were weren’t on the run obviously, but we moved around a lot the first ten years of my life; by the time I was in fifth grade, I had been to five different schools, and the idea of having to start all over with each new move really resonated with me, especially back then. The environment around you completely changes, but there’s this strong, loving constant at the center of it, the family you’re in and how you interact with them, and how that familiarity grounds you despite the change.

I saw it again as a teenager, twice in two days, and was mesmerized by Phoenix all over again, imitating his mannerisms for weeks afterwards, in that way a teenager often does when they find an identity that speaks to them or intrigues them in some way. I even took up piano lessons again, having abandoned them for the (so much more cool) guitar a few years earlier, specifically just to learn the little portion of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” that he plays in one of the early scenes for the music teacher at his new school. It’s one of the few piano pieces I still have memorized to this day, and not a week goes by that I don’t play it, and thus, think of this film in some way. Watching it now, though, I also see the story just as much through the eyes of his parents – it’s impossible not to, once you have kids. Whereas before I identified so strongly with Danny and his adolescent struggles to find his own life and way for himself, and needing to break away from his family despite knowing how much they need him, now I find myself with just as much empathy for his parents, how hard they must have worked to raise and protect him and his younger brother over the years in the midst of this crazy fugitive lifestyle, and how agonizing it must have been for them once they finally realize (on slightly different timetables) that it’s time to let him go. I cry big ol’ tears at the end still, but now they’re every bit as much for the parents as they are for Danny.

SOM: It’s interesting you mention the music, which is so much a part of the story, and also speaks to identity. Tony Mottola did the score for the film, lovely, lilting and sad, but the film is filled with music: Madonna, Beethoven, and James Taylor being the obvious anchors to three very important scenes. But on a deeper level, what music MEANS to the people in the film is also part of how they see themselves, how they respond to the world. Annie gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to go off-the-grid and blow buildings up. Her father mentions the “irony” in the fact that she now asks him to take in Danny, to immerse her son in the life she ran away from. Later, when Danny wants to go to the chamber music concert at his music teacher’s house, Artie flips out. Artie eventually says that Danny can’t go because Danny will not be safe on display like that, but until that moment, Artie goes on and on about how it would be fine if it was a “rock and roll show”, and that he doesn’t want Danny to sit there listening to white-skinned privileged “crap.”

Artie’s snobbery is as pernicious as the so-called snobbery of the music teacher. You can see why Annie choosing Artie as a mate—a man who felt this way about her background—was an enormously rebellious act for her. Choosing Artie was giving her parents the middle finger. You can still see the rebellious teenager in her when she sits across the table from her father. For Danny to respond to Beethoven in the emotional way that he does, is threatening to Artie. Artie would be comfortable with a kid who loved punk music, or folk music. When Artie meets Lorna for the first time, and Lorna turns out to be cool, he asks her, “Are you sure you’re Phillips’ kid?” He’s joking, but it’s a mean comment. Artie hasn’t even met her father, and he has written her father off as worthless and snooty because he teaches music.

And then we have Lorna, who, like Annie, has rejected her privileged upbringing, and rejected what she sees as her father’s elitist interests. If Artie wishes that his son was a miniature version of himself, then the same thing has happened with Lorna and her father. Her father looks at her like, “How have I created this slightly scary teenager with a Bob Marley poster on her wall? Who is this person?” Lorna has taken a summer job at a gas station. She, too, is searching for an identity outside of the one assigned to her.

CP: Yes! I’m so glad we’re looking at the music—and the role of music—in Running on Empty. I think it’s one of the keys to the whole thing in terms of telling the story, establishing characters and alliances, and providing both a thematic and emotional throughline to the film. Mottola’s score, especially the main theme, is absolutely perfect (and criminally unavailable for some reason – I’ve been listening to the main theme on YouTube all morning because it’s the best available option currently). It’s delicate, melancholy in the best kind of way, and manages to both capture and enhance the way the entire film feels to me, all in just a couple of minutes.

It’s interesting to note that the rest of the music that fills the film was hand-picked by Lumet himself, and you can tell the love and care and attention he put into each choice. “Pathetique” is, to my mind, one of the finest pieces of music ever composed by a human being—another piece that perfectly sums up the mood of the film in a very short space of time—and the rest of the classical music chosen and performed in the film radiates that same kind of feeling; even the Mozart piece Danny plays for his Julliard audition, “Fantasia, K. 475”, is performed in a slower, more reflective and aching way than the piece is traditionally played. Lumet pays so much attention to small details like this in the film, to building and sustaining an emotional tenor to the whole thing. And it works, beautifully. You can imagine another filmmaker going with a much different approach – this is, at least externally, a suspense/fugitive story – but you get the sense that that’s just the canvas that Lumet and screenwriter Naomi Forner chose to paint on, that what they’re far more interested in telling is this small, intimate family drama, full of the stuff that all our lives are made of.

The “Fire and Rain” scene you’ve referenced a couple of times, my god, it’s just a knock-out in every way. A scene of a counter-culture family, singing and dancing to James Taylor as they clean up dinner, is practically waiting to be made fun of, or to be dismissed out of hand for milking cheap sentimentality. Yet somehow, the scene not only works, but manages to emerge as this powerful, full-beating heart at the center of the film’s narrative. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, but it toes the line perfectly—and, as you mentioned, with no cuts! – and offers a wallop of an emotional payoff. It’s like this brief calm in the middle of an oncoming storm—you know things are going to get rough, soon, and some very tough decisions are going to have to be made – but for a moment we get to pause and just revel in this wonderful little moment.

SOM: The family dancing to James Taylor is that very, very rare thing: a perfect scene. It appears to just be happening, unfolding (partially because it all goes down with no cuts, and they’re all in the frame at the same time) – but of course, Lumet set it all up very deliberately, and the actors had to create it. It’s perfect. It works every time.

Let’s get back to lying, though. In a normal healthy family, children are taught not to lie. In the Pope family, they absorb lies with every breath. The children are trained to participate in the family fictions. Their parents have made them co-conspirators. Danny and his brother are used to it. Danny has not questioned that part of his upbringing…until he met Lorna. His first line in the film is “Baseball is my life …”, coming after he strikes out, wildly, at his school baseball game. Danny deadpans that line: baseball is not his life at all…but it’s something he says to throw people off the scent of who he really is. He does this automatically, and Lorna clocks him on that tendency instantly. He wants to be with her, he pulls away. She asks a question, he rolls down a hill. He initiates a passionate kiss, and then flees away from her. His survival skills – his lying skills – have been compromised by his friendship with her. It is the only time he has felt close to someone. And he cannot be with her at ALL if he can’t be with her entirely, truthfully. Lorna is the catalyst. Nothing is possible without her. Gus, who shows up and steals the credit card for the getaway car, is the tip-off to the FBI, but Lorna is the emotional catalyst for Danny’s transformation.

Most people feel bad about lying. Annie and Artie lie so well that they feel no shame about it. Annie STILL defends blowing up that building when she talks with her father. Members of the radical 1970s “organization” the Weather Underground (the model for Annie and Artie’s group) fled underground, some of them for decades. In the documentary about the group, very few of the members show any repentance or second thoughts about what they did. They still feel that their violence was justified. (When Artie shows Gus’ guns to his kids saying, “Guns were never what we were about”, the sheer level of denial in that line is breath-taking. Judd Hirsch plays that complexity beautifully.

River Phoenix’s performance is heart-wrenching because of how much Danny is drawn towards transparency, sensitivity, openness … and yet the cult of his family cannot allow him that space. He’s like his mother. He’s a good, good liar. It’s a hell of a legacy to give to your kids, and Annie finally realizes that. As we’ve discussed, music is also a catalyst, as well as the silent way Danny and Annie connect. She has passed on her legacy to him, her love of music, which is also – when you think about it – her childhood, her past, her heritage, all of the things she threw away. Danny’s music is a way to keep that part of herself alive.

CP: That’s so very true. I was just about to touch on the relationship between Danny and his mother, because it actually interests me far more than the father-son relationship in the film. His father – who Hirsch captures brilliantly – is a rather typical patriarchal figure in many ways, the one that Danny-as-adolescent needs to rebel against in an archetypal sense to break away from his family and become his own person. Though the context this plays out against is uncommon given their lifestyle, the basic dynamic and theme is one of the oldest, most common stories we have. So, while it’s interesting on some level to me, what’s far more interesting is the relationship and dynamic between Danny and his mom. Because you’re absolutely right: he is just like her. He doesn’t seem to have an ounce of the dominant masculine energy that Artie often exudes; he’s not a leader by nature, he’s a follower, an appeaser (and, I’m guessing, an INFP). And even if it’s never made explicit, I always get the sense that, to some degree, Annie was caught up following Artie in their Vietnam-era activities—not that she didn’t have anti-war views, but that her drive to follow Artie in protesting likely came from a desire to make the world a better place in some vague, compassionate way, whereas Artie’s motives likely had more than a touch of stridency and vitriol to them.

So then she ends up in this situation where she has to go on the run, give up all her own dreams for what her life could have been, and make the best of this chaotic, mercurial reality she’s in. She has to figure out an entirely different way to raise their two year old, and as much as her life becomes about survival and lying and staying one step ahead of the game, she’s still a mother, and so her life is just as much about raising these kids and trying to give them sense of stability, grounding, protection, and love – even as she knows this is no way for a kid to have to grow up. And then Danny turns out so much like her—musical, creative, compassionate, sensitive, loyal—and she’s caught between wanting so badly for him to live out the life she never got a chance at, and knowing that if she does so, she’ll put him through exactly what she went through around his age, being cut off from his family forever. And she’ll lose him. But in doing so, part of her—the artistic part—will get a chance to live on.

I’m also interested in the notion of how lying is normalized in the Pope family, because I hadn’t really thought about it that explicitly until you just brought it up. The ramifications to closeness and intimacy are obvious, but I hadn’t thought much about the warped morality of it all, in terms of raising children that way, where lying is not only second nature, but absolutely necessary. (We don’t spend much time with the younger brother, Harry, but I’d love to know how he gets through his life.) It’s strange to imagine growing up in a family where being a good liar is something to be proud of, with its own set of rules, and how normal that seems to kids growing up in that environment, because that’s really all they know. But of course, that only works if the family unit is isolated and insulated. And so once Danny starts connecting with Lorna, and really opening up about everything to her, he gets exposed to this totally different, outside perspective on how he’s grown up, and how messed up and unfair it has been, and starts to think about what he wants and needs for himself, apart from his family, for the first time. You’re absolutely right that Lorna—and his love for her—is the true catalyst in the movie.

SOM: I have a slightly different take on Annie, at least in terms of her being “caught up following Artie” in their Vietnam era activities. That’s how her parents chose to look at it, blaming their daughter’s criminality on Artie, but she says to her father, in regards to blowing up the building, “It was my idea.” I believe her. Artie jokes he was raised by “old Jew Bolsheviks”, and it seems that his political behavior was seen in the context of their own political activity, part of how the family had operated, their shared values of political action and resistance and all the rest. But Annie—like Patricia Hearst, like the Manson followers, like the Weather Underground members—mostly emerged from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. Self-hatred, or class-hatred, was a huge motivator, as well as sticking it to her parents. She called her father an “imperialist pig” (recall the creepy Patty Hearst recordings done while she was in captivity, and how she talked about her father), and so I get the sense that she was much more of an “ends justify the means” person than Artie was. When Gus re-appears, it is clear that there was a bond between he and Annie. Artie barely matters to Gus. The way he asks about Artie, the way she answers, suggests a lot of inner conflict: Annie not wanting to say anything bad or unflattering about her husband to this man who had probably once been her lover as well as her comrade. Gus sneers at how she has copped out, sold out. But listen: When he says to her, “Why don’t you take this nice little suburban family, and turn them all in? Cut them loose!” What is her answer? It’s not, “I could never turn my kids in” or “I need to be near my kids.” Or “Never, not in a million years.” Her answer is: “I wish I could.” It’s chilling. It’s human. It’s extremely eloquent. Gus looked at her and saw a mirror. She was a leader, like he was, not a hippie-dippie follower in over her head.

Time, and isolation, has changed her. Being a mother has changed her. Seeing her children pay for her mistakes … that’s something she did not expect, something she cannot abide. Danny is 17. Think about it. Annie and Artie have never really discussed what the hell the plan is for their kids – which is part of what is so touching about this family. There’s a naiveté there. Annie and Artie are living another kind of lie, not just that they are on the FBI Most Wanted List … No, the deeper lie (or, fiction, perhaps is a better word) is that the family will be able to stay together always. They seem to truly believe it. They seem truly blindsided by the college-application conversation, as though they never saw it coming. They haven’t looked ahead of next week. It’s like Danny has grown up while they weren’t paying attention.

In their different ways, both Artie and Annie suddenly realize that Danny is not a child anymore. There’s that gorgeous scene (played out with no cuts) where Danny sneaks home late at night, and Artie is up. Artie asks him if he’s been with Lorna. Danny nods Yes. Artie then begins to talk about how much he likes Lorna, and the scene is awkward and sweet, with Danny not saying a word. Out of the blue, and in the same quiet tone, Artie says, “Are you sleeping with her?” Danny, startled, doesn’t have time to lie. He nods. Artie nods in response, and says, “Okay. Get some sleep.” What a scene. The look on HIrsch’s face after Danny quietly goes up to bed speaks volumes. Artie knows now. If there’s a harbinger to Artie’s swift and unexpected action in the final moment of the film, it’s there in the look in Hirsch’s face that closes out that nighttime scene. It’s beautifully set up.

CP: That’s an absolutely wonderful scene. The whole film is full of such perfect, understated, human moments like that. It’s a credit to the screenwriter (who was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for the script – and is Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mother by the way!), as well as to Lumet’s impeccable direction. It’s really hard to overstate how well he works with this material. To think of all the different kinds of films he was able to make over four decades, it’s really something, and I think he gets astonishing performances out of the entire cast here.

It’s interesting to hear your take on Annie as well, because I can totally see what you’re saying, even while not completely agreeing with it. I mean, yes, she does tell her father the bombing was her idea – but at the same time, you were just mentioning earlier how great a liar she is, almost reflexively by this point. So I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to conclude that this was another one of those lies, told to her father as a way of doing what her lying often does – pushing him away, because it’s too painful a discussion to navigate otherwise. She’s hardened by that point, because she has to be. Either way, the entire scene is so heart-wrenching, both in the moment itself and what it portends for both of their futures – and Danny’s as well. They’ll be getting a version of their daughter back, in Danny, whom they’ve never met, and she’ll be losing her son, as well as her Dad all over again. It’s such a small, intimate scene, but the stakes are so high.

SOM: I still think that Annie’s relationship to Gus, the clear closeness she has with this truly frightening individual, speaks volumes about who she was, still is (“Take a walk with him, Artie,” she encourages), as well as her role in the group back in the day. Her guilt, so apparent it vibrates off of her, comes as much out of the guilt at her leadership role as anything else. “He wasn’t supposed to be there,” she says to her father, of the janitor who was blinded in the bomb explosion. She’s still making excuses. It may sound like I’m being hard on her. But that’s not my relationship to the character (or to any character I respond to emotionally in film). She’s emotional, selfish, extremely kind, exhausted, and not entirely trustworthy. Still. And I think she knows it. If Artie hadn’t walked in the door, how much further would it have gone with Gus? I think she still feels the draw of violence.  I think she still could be talked into it. She’s a very complex woman. I love Christine Lahti’s performance because it doesn’t plead for our sympathy. She doesn’t “make a case” for this woman’s actions. Instead, we just get a person, who made horrible mistakes, continues to make mistakes, and is trying, trying, to hold it together. It’s very powerful work.

CP: You know, the more we’re talking about this, the more I’m realizing just how much of this film really, truly is about parenting – how to be a good parent in difficult situations. The choices and sacrifices Annie and Artie are making to give Danny a shot at life, the decision her own parents make to take Danny in as their own, despite how badly she’s hurt and saddened them by her fifteen-year disappearance (they found out they had another grandchild from the media!). So much of Running on Empty is about how the choices of one generation affects the one that follows, how the “sins” of the parents are passed down to their children. Yet there’s love, between all these characters. Such powerful love, by the end of the film; the best kind, the selfless kind that wants for someone else’s happiness.

SOM: I agree with your observation that the film is about parenting. There are multiple parents in the film. Annie and Artie. Mr. Phillips (no mother in the picture, apparently). The evocative reference to Artie’s parents. And the glimpse we get of Annie’s mother and father. I just want to mention the scene where Danny tracks down his grandmother, pretending to be a pizza delivery boy so that he can get a look at her, maybe to feel a connection to his severed past. She seems pretty “uptight,” as Danny’s younger brother observes when he sees their picture in the newspaper. He’s right. Danny shows at the “service entrance” of Annie’s parents’ brownstone in New York City (the fact that it even has a service entrance says it all). The maid is baffled. Nobody at this house has ordered a pizza. Nobody has probably ordered a pizza from that address ever. Annie’s mother (Augusta Dabney) appears, at first hidden behind a gigantic vase of flowers, and then comes to the door to see what this all might be about. Note the expression on her face. She is not imperious. She is not offended. Instead, she is concerned that the delivery boy will have to pay for the pizza himself. You know that she would give him the money if that were the case. Now I don’t know about you, but that is such a precise detail, a tiny moment that tells me everything I need to know about her.

This leads to the final moment. Knowing that Danny will be going to live with that woman we saw in the doorway, a kind and open face, worried that this poor kid will have to shell out money for somebody else’s mistake, is comforting. He will be cared for, even loved.

CP: I so wish we could talk about this movie forever – but I know we need to wrap up. So let’s talk about that very last scene then, by way of conclusion. Danny rides his bike vigorously towards the meet-up spot, after having just said goodbye to Lorna for the last time, ready to head back out on the road with his family, to assume a new identity and leave New Jersey—and a spot at Julliard—behind for good. The truck is ready to go and he dutifully throws his bike in the back. Then his dad tells him to take it out and you see this look come over Danny’s face. There’s so much going on emotionally in those final minutes, but also very little actually said out loud. Take me through what those final moments do to you, as a viewer.

SOM: Well, one of the best things for me about the final scene is that Artie’s change of heart, his resolve to let his son go, has happened internally, off-screen. Up to that point, he has been terrified at the thought of breaking up the family unit, and very bully-dominant towards his almost-grown-up son. There was the expression on his face following the late-night talk with his son about Lorna. His realization that Danny has made a connection, a connection that teenage kids are supposed to start making. Who is Artie to deny his son that? But the Oscar-nominated script lets us reflect upon how he came to the decision, if it was made in advance, or if it came to Artie in that very moment when he saw his son barreling towards the truck on his bike.

What then follows is a bombardment of love, three people on one side pouring it onto the solitary figure outside the truck, a kind of love that is white-hot unbearable in its intensity, and leaves the audience wrecked and depleted. Artie wants to give his son something joyful and positive to remember them by, final moments being so crucial. Annie’s final moment with her father back in the day involved her calling him an “imperialist pig” and holding him responsible for the Vietnam War and everything else that was wrong with the world. Her father’s face has absorbed the devastation of that – you can SEE it on him, as impassive as he may appear. You know that any time he looks at her baby pictures, or school pictures, he will not remember that smiling happy young daughter. He will only remember the recrimination of that final moment, her hatred and contempt for him. That rejection has marked him, ruined his life. Artie holds whatever loss and sadness he may feel in check. So does Annie. Let’s give the kid a final glimpse of his family that is worthy of the best part of us: our love, our humor, our closeness. Here ya go, kid. Never forget that this is who you are, this is who WE were, and it is GOOD.

You can’t help what family you are born into. It’s sheer accident. Some people are lucky. Some people are unlucky. Children grow up in the midst of their parents’ adult problems and issues. If the adults handle themselves like grown-ups, the child will be protected. If the adults don’t handle themselves well, the child absorbs stress and pain and chaos with often disastrous consequences.  (I’m thinking of Henry James’ “What Maisie Knew”: two monstrous narcissists go through a messy divorce, and the book is seen entirely through the eyes of their extremely young daughter, who tries to understand what is happening. It’s a devastating book, an indictment of parents who do not protect their children’s innocence.) In Running on Empty, we see family partially as accident, but mostly as intentional. They are outlaws, and so all they have are one another. In one respect, it’s like being a member of a cult with well-defined rules. (Artie expects his son to groove to rock ’n’ roll, not be drawn to the kind of music he himself doesn’t care for personally.) But one of the things Running on Empty does really well is show a family that deals with one another intentionally because taking one another for granted would be dangerous to their survival, and a betrayal of their shared values. And so their family dynamic is filled with conscious intentions, creating moments that work for them, that ground them to the earth (the birthday ritual), focusing on the things that matter to them (caring for each other, not getting swept up in materialism, not caving to conformist “keep up with the Jones” values that crush so many families). Family is seen as a conscious act, an act that must be renewed on a day to day basis. It’s hard work. It’s worth it.

Running on Empty is one of the few films that made me call my family members afterwards and tell them how much I love them.