There’s very little plot to Strangers in Good Company, because that’s not the point of the movie.
The story, such as it is, involves seven old ladies in Canada on some sort of sightseeing bus tour out in the country. I believe none of them knew each other prior to this outing, but by now they at least know each other’s names and have some minimal familiarity with each other.
One of them prevails on the others, and the young black woman bus driver, to venture off the planned route a bit so she can revisit a summer home or cabin that played an important role in her childhood seventy or whatever years ago.
The bus (a converted school bus) breaks down near where she vaguely remembers the house being. They continue on foot, soon coming to an abandoned old house, which doesn’t look familiar to her, meaning either it isn’t the house in question or her memory is faulty. They settle there anyway, as they see no other dwelling in the area.
One of the women, a nun, attempts to fix the vehicle, and failing that volunteers to walk back to the main road (about 20 miles) if necessary. (The bus driver is the youngest by far, and so you would think the one who would take on a challenging physical task like that, but she has twisted her ankle and is badly limping around or hobbling on makeshift crutches.)
They don’t know if the bus can be repaired, the nun will be able to walk far enough to summon help, or someone will stumble upon them, therefore they don’t know if they’ll be there for hours or days, or will die there. (The movie is from the ’80s; they don’t have cell phones.)
Really, though, Strangers in Good Company is not some kind of suspense film; it’s not about scared women trapped in the middle of nowhere and their exciting rescue or whatever. It’s a slow, gentle film, with no particular feel of danger. The women manifest only minimal concern about getting out of their situation, pretty much assuming they’ll only be stuck for a day or two and so it’s no big deal. In the meantime they busy themselves with resourceful ideas for augmenting the minimal food supply they happen to have brought with them on the bus—they catch frogs to cook frog legs; the old Mohawk woman fashions a fishing net of sorts out of some pantyhose—they find enough old mattresses and blankets and such that can be arranged on the floor so they all have a place to sleep, etc.
No, the bus breaking down to strand them is not so much a way to set a substantive story in motion, as to provide a device to put them all in one place and get them talking to each other in order to observe their interaction.
Which brings us to what makes Strangers in Good Company unusual, and kind of neat. The old ladies are all real people, not actresses, and the dialogue is almost entirely ad libbed.
The way I understand it from the little I was able to find and read online about the film, the filmmakers set up certain situations, and gave the cast maybe a starting line or two of dialogue, but beyond that the women are just being themselves. The things they say about themselves, the memories they recount, etc. are really about them, not about them as movie characters. Because their words aren’t scripted, they will sometimes talk over each other and such, like in real life—the kind of thing Woody Allen tries to do with the dialogue in his movies but that never feels as genuine as something like this.
I have made a number of “personal history” films (interview-based films telling a person’s life story—typically private films for that person’s family and descendants to have as a record of that person’s life), so hearing people, especially elderly people, look back on and open up about their lives like this is the kind of thing that intrigues me probably more than it does the average person.
One question the film raises, though, is, if you want to make a film about these women talking about their lives, why do it in a convoluted way as part of what looks more like a conventional fictional movie? Why not just make a nonfiction film, a documentary, wherein the women are interviewed about themselves?
I think there are pros and cons to either decision. Psychologically there is something just a little more interesting about embedding the dialogue in a story, slight as it is, about their having this adventure together. A film of talking head interviews can come across as comparatively dry and sterile. Here their talking about themselves feels like it comes about more naturally, through something that could happen in real life, rather than through the artificiality of formal interviews. Not to mention there are the lovely shots of the Canadian countryside.
But it’s also worth noting that there’s a “tease” element to this film. In keeping with its realism, the women only open up to the modest degree you would expect them to with near-strangers that they have a couple days to bond with in unusual circumstances. The situation, the company, is conducive to some degree of frankness, but only some.
By contrast, when I interview someone for one of my films, over 90% of the time I learn considerably more about them. They say more, I can ask follow up questions for more information and clarity, etc. It turns out that most people are rather flattered by the notion that they are being interviewed so that their life can be preserved for posterity, and they tend to be surprisingly candid, so I typically get a pretty thorough account of who they are.
For that matter, in a fully fictional film with roughly the same plot structure as Strangers in Good Company, there would surely be more drama. People would tell compelling stories about themselves, there would be breakdowns, conflicts, more obvious positive bonding with each other, etc. With a formal script you can control such things, and 99% of the time a filmmaker would make sure there are plenty of high points and such.
But when you’re dealing with real people and ad libbed dialogue, you kind of get what you get. Of course there’s plenty of editing, but that can only do so much.
It’s not like the women all sit in a circle and fully speak from the heart at length about their lives. Instead we get intriguing little snapshots. Mostly in one-to-one settings, someone will mention something about their past, ask a question, whatever. Some of the women really don’t reveal much of anything about their lives over the course of the film, and none comes close to providing a thorough life story. They are snippets. Someone will recount a fond memory of being in love as a youth, two women will question each other about whether they fear death and whether they anticipate an afterlife, someone will mention a concern about one of their children, etc. The exchanges are brief, and rarely do they go very far.
Basically, people open up only the amount you’d expect them to in this kind of situation, which ranges from barely at all to significantly but still limited.
A nonfiction, personal history film or documentary about these women would be considerably deeper and more thorough. At the same time, there’s a charm about this film the way it is. You get to know them in the limited, gradual way you get to know people in real life. You learn just enough about them to wish you could know more.
I won’t say I was fully engaged the whole movie, since, as I say, it’s a slow-moving film with only a minimal story, and the women only partly open up about themselves. But for the most part it felt like a privilege to spend this time with them.
I appreciated how periodically after one of the women spoke about her past, old black and white photos of her younger self would be shown. That felt more like a documentary device, but in any case I consistently had a warm feeling seeing those photos and realizing that really we’re the same person inside at each stage of our lives. The pretty, hopeful, awkward, or goofy 5 and 15 and 25 year olds of the photos were these same wise, reflective, confident, or depressed old women.
There isn’t a single one of the women, including the bus driver, who doesn’t come across as more likable than not, more sympathetic than not. I liked the nun quite a bit. Maybe my favorite is a woman who may be mildly retarded or at least comes across as simple-minded, but is just about the sweetest, most innocent, most good-hearted person you’d ever want to meet.
There’s a particularly nice scene where one of the other women mentions to her that she’s a lesbian, and she just treats it as an interesting fact about her—questioning her about it and how it has affected her life, genuinely empathizing when told that in the past even more than now people had to hide something like that and were encouraged to feel great shame about it, and so on.
Strangers in Good Company is the kind of film that reminds us how we should be more alert to the opportunities in real life to learn more about those around us, to genuinely listen to them and care about them, to be more revealing of ourselves to those who care to know us, to appreciate the wisdom of the elderly, and to convey the message to those we interact with that every life matters, every life is interesting, everyone’s life story should be told and listened to.