I grew up when kidnapping and abduction had just insinuated itself as a new American fear. My parents told stories of their childhoods teaming with freedom, the geography of their hometowns seemingly boundary-less, their only chaperone the sun in the sky. Meanwhile by the time I was nine and convinced my mother I could walk to the store across the street on my own, she watched with gritted teeth through the window until I landed safety within the confines of our driveway unwrapping my fresh pack of gum, her eyes trained unblinking on the swish of the automatic door willing me to reemerge unchanged.
The newness of this fear gave it an urgency I was otherwise unaccustomed to, and that urgency set it apart from the other suburban concerns we were taught to be mindful of; traffic, stray or unfamiliar dogs, homemade halloween candy, swimming without a lifeguard. We were regaled with warnings about white vans, strangers asking for help finding their missing puppies, people who claimed to be a friend of our parents trying to pick us up from school. This was the age of The Amber Alert. The news picked up stories of blonde haired girls gone missing and edited the segments into an onslaught of images and terror graphics that played on repeat in our living rooms. All of this became an early part of my worldview both in the vulnerability of being a child and later the predatory culture that surrounds being a woman.
As I got older I slowly started to recognize these images and growing, dare I say, mythology around missing children and abducted women as more than just warnings but as an evolving cultural appetite that felt more and more invasive to me. I made “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” out of genuine curiosity about the complicated emotionality in these stories that is often eclipsed by sensationalism, and as a counterpoint to the damsel-in-distress-narrative we seem so married to, or at the very least far too comfortable with. In a conversation which is often focused in the wrong direction, over-examining and the details of someone’s victimization, I wanted to make a story that didn’t focus on the private particulars of someone’s survival, or sexualize or exploit its protagonist.
The film centers on a 22-year-old woman’s return to her biological parents after living with her abductor in a basement for 17 years and follows the struggle of reentry for all involved. I was careful to not color any one person as a hero or a villain but instead blur those lines and let the film live in the unknowable. And though the circumstances of the film are incredibly specific, I left room in the telling of it for us to be able to see ourselves in the emotional truths of the trauma and in the central questions about love and identity, to humanize something that is often presented, both by popular culture and news outlets in a salacious and voyeuristic parade of buzz words and stiff dramatizations, ending either in tragedy or a happy reunion. “Stockholm” ends in neither, but rather somewhere directly in between. Nor does it pull the curtain back on the basement or what happened there, a point of contention for some during the development stages of the script, and I assume the watching of the film.
The young woman in question, Leia (played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan) is not a damsel in distress, or victim. She is an ever evolving sum of her experience, as we all are. She is strong and stubborn and quietly smart. Some have described her as stunted, which I attribute to a scene where she struggles to operate a toaster, among other things. But if you look past those surface side effects of her circumstance she is in fact educated, has a deep emotional intelligence and is sure of herself regardless of how unsure she is of her surroundings or her past. She is more than what has happened to her, even if she is never treated as such.
One of the reasons I think we get so magnetized into these stories is that it creates the narratives about women we are used to and either consciously or unconsciously celebrate: women stripped of power, or women reclaiming power through revenge. We are less comfortable with women who are simply strong, in posession of themselves and operating accordingly. I wanted to represent that woman, especially in a circumstance so shaped by our ideas of victimhood, in a medium where we might expect for her to either be rescued or vengeful. For ratings. In Leia’s mother Marcy (played beautifully by Cynthia Nixon) I wanted to craft a character not only wrestling with years of grief but also with being thrust back in to sudden motherhood, a circumstance we have come to think of as a female attribute, something our culture assumes is easy and natural for women – like riding a bike, but is, in fact, deeply more complicated.
As the film progresses it moves slightly to the left of its naturalistic beginnings and evolves into an illustration of impulse and emotion, especially in the last third. And despite the darknesses it excavates I still find myself applauding both women for their strength and bravery of thought, however flawed. Which is exactly what I was hoping to achieve within myself in the making of the film; bravery of thought, however flawed.
As our vocabulary of female narrative expands I can only assume we’ll find ourselves less enthralled with women as objects that are chosen, or taken, or kept – fictional or otherwise, and that the mainstream appetite for victim narratives will evolve instead to an appreciation of survivor narratives, which requires nothing more than a mindset.
Until then, I feel proud to have made this film, fortunate that it is making its way into the world, and hopeful it might be part of a changing conversation.
Nikole Beckwith is a recent recipient of The San Francisco Film Society’s inaugural Female Filmmaker Fellowship. She wrote the family dramedy “Three Generations,” which stars Naomi Watts, Susan Surrandon and Elle Fanning. Her debut feature “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” (2012 Nicholl Fellowship, 2012 Black List, 2013 Sundance Labs) debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and will premiere on Lifetime on Saturday, May 9 at 8 p.m. It was recently nominated for three 2015 Critics Choice Awards, including Best Movie for TV.
READ MORE: Saoirse Ronan Gets Kidnapped in ‘Stockholm, Pennsylvania’