One of the most thoughtful critics in the business, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, in 2014 declared director Josephine Decker to be at the helm of a “new grammar” of narrative. He wrote,
Working with her actors, Decker doesn’t seem to observe behavior but to invent it: the characters bring a glint of whimsy, a lilt of pain, and an undertone of seething erotic power to the seemingly most ordinary activities. The images by the cinematographer… exalt bodies and movement, light and texture into frenzies of vertiginous possibility. The subject of the images is time, in exactly the same way that a writer can describe a single moment of feeling, an instant of vision, or a flicker of memory through the course of sentences and paragraphs. Normally it would be an insult to say that a movie that runs a mere hour and a quarter feels as if it were much longer, but here it’s both accurate and high praise: vast realms of emotional experience are condensed into the movie’s brief span.
Following 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline and 2022’s The Sky is Everywhere, Brody’s observation feels too restrained. Decker isn’t just a major figure in the emergence of a new filmic-narrative grammar; there are few more complete stylists working in the English language.
Her newest film, The Sky is Everywhere, introduces Grace Kaufman as Lennie, a high school clarinet prodigy aspiring for the Juilliard School who experiences the dual pull of love and grief for the first time. After her sister Sarah (Ji-young Yoo) dies from an unexpected heart issue, no one understands what Lennie is experiencing… no one other than her dead sister’s left-behind partner, Toby (Pico Alexander). Also in a budding romance with the dream boy and fellow musical genius Joe Fontaine (Jacques Colimon), Lennie’s love triangle carries personally ontological consequences: what kind of person is she without her sister? Does it matter how she exhausts her love?
Decker stands out for her ability to capture emotion—not just in her actors, but pure human emotional experiences—and to translate the encapsulated emotions into a narrative visual story. This, I want to argue, can be partly explained in Decker’s spiritual journey, which she described for Bomb Magazine:
If there’s one thing I have been trained for my whole life, it’s ritual and sacred spaces…I grew up Christian and have practiced Buddhism for the last six years. I have also been part of this artist residency at the School of Making Thinking, where we create and participate in rituals…I think we’re all craving ritual and community and things that make us do the weird.
In another interview, Decker said, “I grew up Christian, and I still go to church sometimes, and I also practice Zen Buddhism.” She hypothesizes that this syncretistic spirituality affects her artistry: “I think that really affected my work so much.”
Stylistically, I think this spiritual journey is at the least reflected in, if not shaping, her work through a marriage of the historic Christian emphasis on “the good, the true, and the beautiful” (mostly the first and last of these transcendentals) with Buddhist aesthetics.
Buddhist aesthetics, especially in its Western variations, have been widely associated with greenery, flowers, and natural life (as was St. Francis, who is referenced in the movie). The scenes of listening to music break the barrier of reality (somewhat related to dharma). In the most prominent scene, Lennie and Joe share a pair of earbuds to listen to Bach as they lay on dark green summer grass with unrealistically bright pink and blue flowers just out of focus in the background. The music breaks reality and enters magical realism, where characters can float at any moment, plants move onto them with a weird semi-erotic energy, and the act of listening is equated to sex. As Bach continues, the fantastical flowers move and multiply, and the two simultaneously share facial expressions normally reserved for orgasms as they arch their backs. It’s not just like sex—Joe realizes afterward, “We just had sex.” That this combination of sexual awakening and musical beauty is expressed through natural visuals almost feels like the perfect encapsulation of a (liberal) Western Christian-Buddhist spirituality.
It also leaves fingerprints all over the thematic and narrative material of The Sky is Everywhere. Lennie describes herself as being obsessed with the saints and often brings up different hagiographical stories, such as St. Francis’s love for animals, in small-talk. At the same time, the heavier theological material that often accompanies admiration of the saints is completely absent. She (Lennie, though perhaps Decker as well) doesn’t care for theology, pontificating, or “salvation.” Lennie does not pray to God, but calls the phone of her dead sister to ask for signs. She does not have any icons or relics of the typical saintly figures, but instead goes to her sister’s room and sits at a craft painting of her sister’s face. And indeed, while avoiding spoilers, her dead sister even shows the ability to intervene with the affairs of the world: she answers her sister’s prayers.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer thought, “By means of music, we experience a kind of recognition of the true nature of world, and an exposure of the world of illusion in which we live.” The idea that the world or all of reality is clouded by an illusion resonates with many forms of Buddhism—and for Decker, this reality can only be awakened through the joint process of loving that which is beautiful. This marriage of Christian and Buddhist thought, I think, results in the unique new “grammar” that Brody recognized: “[Decker’s films offer] the primal renewal of the image, an image that emerges in the immediate form of the filmmaker’s emotional impulses.” Those impulses happen to be spiritually informed—and viewing her films through a religious/spiritual lens may offer newly substantiated interpretations.
Her bold film grammar is innovative, in part, because Christian-Buddhism has never been taken seriously by a visual artist before.
The Sky is Everywhere
dir. Josephine Decker
Now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+