Have you seen Song of the Sea? It’s an exquisitely animated movie by Tomm Moore, and it was animated for best animated feature at the 2014 Oscars (it lost to Big Hero 6). I’ll give a spoiler-free plot synopsis, and then warn you before I start to talk about spoilers. You’re OK to read the this first part, promise.
Ben is a young boy who lives in a lighthouse with his sheepdog Cu, his father Conor, and mother Bronagh. The family is preparing for a baby. That night, Bronagh disappears into the sea, leaving behind newborn Saoirse.
Six years later, on Saoirse’s birthday, Conor’s mother comes to the lighthouse to see her grandchildren. When Saoirse tries to walk into the sea herself Granny decides that the lighthouse is no place for the children and she convinces her son the children need to live with her in the city. When Saoirse gets sick, Ben realizes that he has to get her back to the lighthouse, and to the white coat she left behind. But the Owl Witch Macha is also looking for Saoirse and Ben begins to realize that the Irish folk stories his mother told him may be more than just fairytales.
Want a better synopsis? Watch the trailer (which can truly convey how visually beautiful this story is, the animation is no joke):
I cried when I watched the trailer, I cried when I watched the movie. I am a sappy person. I knew I would cry! But something else about the movie really spoke to me, something that I’m not sure was intended, and that’s what I want to talk about.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
For most of the movie, Ben hates Saoirse. He resents her as the cause of their mother leaving, resents the special treatment Saoirse gets, resents that she cannot talk, and thinks of her as the reason Granny takes them away from the lighthouse. He is mean to her, he yells at her, when Saoirse wants Ben to share one of their Mother’s folk stories he tells her the scariest one- the story of Macha the Owl Witch who steals your feelings and turns you to stone.
The relationship between Ben and Saoirse reminds me of the relationship I had with my brother when he was first born, and even though Ben and Saoirse’s journey is magical and full of selkies and sidhe to me it feels like the story of coming to terms with a sibling who has disabilities.
I’ve touched on the fact that my brother has Down Syndrome. We’ve been extremely close for most of our lives, I truly love him dearly. But when he was born I did not have much love for him. I had resentment and I misplaced my anger at an unfair situation onto him. When my brother required extensive hospitalization, I felt like he had managed to take both my parents from. When I was tasked with taking on more responsibility because of him, I was resentful. I saw this interloper enter my family and take what I loved away from me. In a sense I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. It wasn’t my brother’s fault he was born with time consuming and frightening health complications, but 4 yr-old me couldn’t figure out who else to blame.
And being the sibling of a special needs kid you hear just as much “Welcome to Holland!” bullshit as the parents do. And your friends with siblings will certainly have rivalries, but they will talk about how fun and special it is to have a new baby that they get to help care for. They are elevated to Big Brother/Sister. And as a child, you just don’t know how to mourn and understand your losses. You can only see what has been taken from you.
When Ben interacts with Saoirse he can only see what has been taken. His mother, his father’s happiness, his home. Saoirse can see Ben for who he truly is- a little boy with a big heart. Ben can only see the “disability” (which in terms of plot I’m arguing is NOT Saoirse’s muteness but the fact that she is a selkie). But as they journey together Ben begins to see Saoirse’s value as a person. She’s the only one who can save those who have been turned to stone! And Ben is the one who knows the songs and the stories, so he must help her reach her potential- he’s the one who teaches her the songs that defeat Macha and free the trapped sidhe. And when Ben realizes that Conor threw away Saoirse’s selkie skin in a misguided attempt to protect his family it is Ben who puts himself at risk and overcomes his fears (he is always shown wearing a life jacket and hates going in the water) to save Saoirse. When it is time for Saoirse to chose between joining the sidhe and staying with the family, Ben wants her to stay.
There are as many messages and takeaways in Song of the Sea as there are hairs in Seanchai’s beard. It’s a story of family, and forgiveness. A story that tells you a life without sadness is not a full life (better than Inside Out) and to me, it’s a story about the journey of learning to love someone with special needs for their whole self as you move past your anger.