I’m a cry-baby. I always have been. The first to cry on the playground, the first to take an insult to heart and wear the hurt on my face, the first to apologize for the sobs I can’t control, that seep their way out of a well of tears constantly bubbling below the surface just waiting to be tapped.
And because it can take years to unlearn the shame that goes hand in hand with crying—we’re taught early on that it’s unacceptable, that it’s weakness, maybe even failure—I’ve been fighting back my own tears for as long as I can remember. It’s a losing battle, one I spent a long time being embarrassed of fighting. I’d contort my face, as if the right expression could act as a dam. I’d try to choke it back, perfecting the art of the pantomime in an effort to prove that I really did just have “something in my eye” despite being fairly certain that I was fooling no one, least of all myself. But finally, at 30, I’ve realized that it can’t actually be helped. That it shouldn’t be helped. That it’s just a facet of myself like the color of my hair or the size of my feet. It just is.
But there was always something different about crying at movies, something that made it seem more acceptable on some level. I remember being seven years old, sitting in the theater for The Lion King, watching Mufasa fall as the tears ran down my cheeks and being startled, even shocked by the fact that something I knew wasn’t real could make me feel this way.
At first, I wondered if it was just the comfort of the darkness and the anonymity that goes with it. Isn’t it always easier to accept our feelings when we think no one is watching?
Or maybe the veil of shame lifts because you aren’t crying for yourself; you’re crying because of what’s on screen. The tears aren’t for you, they aren’t personal, so you can accept them. Is that what makes it easier?
That’s what I used to think, but I don’t know that I do anymore.
My relationship to the films that make me cry, particularly the ones that make me cry the hardest, has changed. Now the difference feels like it must be something more than all of that. Because the movies that wring the sobs from me, that devastate me and leave me feeling raw and exposed, tend to be the ones I love the most.
The first time I realized that something different was happening with my response to movies was in 2013 when I saw J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. The movie stars Robert Redford as an unnamed sailor (he’s identified only as "Our Man" in the credits) fighting to survive after his boat collides with a shipping container. For 117 minutes, we watch as the elements and luck conspire against him. Dialogue is borderline nonexistent.
It was a small film that had been relegated to the smallest theater and the smallest audience attended. I think there were perhaps only six of us there, maybe eight, and I'm certain that every single one of them could tell that the movie had destroyed me. By the time the credits rolled, I was inconsolable and all too aware that no one else was crying, but I couldn't stop. My entire body shook. I slunk down deep into my seat, wanting to disappear, unable to get up even as the lights came on and the rest of the meager crowd filed out. My boyfriend at the time could only sit next to me, a hand on my shoulder, and wait for me to stop.
“Wow, you’re really going through something, aren’t you?” he’d said.
And I was. I just didn't understand what.
But that was one of the most powerful filmgoing experiences of my entire life. I didn't just like the movie; I was rocked to my core at such a subconscious level it was overwhelming. I was crying harder than I had when my own grandparents died and I had absolutely no idea why. When I think about it now, I like to imagine that this was the moment that taught me to love the way a film can break me down into nothing but a pulsating nerve.
Because here’s the thing: until that moment, every time I’d cried at a movie had made perfect sense to me. I cried at Brokeback Mountain and Titanic and Dear Zachary because they were tragedies. I cried at deaths and rapes because those moments are painful.
All is Lost had none of those. All is Lost is harrowing and thrilling and introspective and maybe even philosophical, but it is decidedly not a tragedy. What was affecting me was something on a deeper, unseen level, and it’s something I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about in the years since.
I remember rewatching the film a couple of years later, this time by myself in my own home. With full knowledge of the beats, I felt prepared for the ending and ultimately curious to see if the experience would repeat itself without that element of surprise.
I was almost shocked when I found myself erupting in tears all over again.
In All is Lost, Our Man is in love with life. He is clinging to it and fighting for it every single step of the way. He does things right and finds himself beaten down anyway. His skill as a sailor is obvious. He is a survivor. A fighter. He wants to live. And the movie punches him down at every turn. His failures are unavoidable. There is little, perhaps nothing at all that he could do differently to save himself. And when he finally gives up, ready to be swallowed whole by the sea, a light appears. And then a hand. And Our Man is saved.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized the movie was giving me permission to connect with my own deeply unshakable love of life and the crying felt like a reminder that I am here in this present moment, very much alive, and that this was something beautiful.
So I cried.
Because of All is Lost, it finally clicked. I love crying at movies. I love it because it is permission to connect to something so much that the feeling can’t be contained or ignored or repressed. It’s permission to cry in a society where if you can remember the first time you cried, you can probably remember someone standing to the side telling you not to. It’s permission to be your most vulnerable and maybe even your most human.
Now, even when my tears don’t make sense to me at the theater, they feel right because I’m alive. I’m here, and so are so many others and whatever's on screen that's opening the floodgates is just one story out of a billion. Crying connects me a little bit more to all of it.