If you pegged Brooklyn as just yet another feel-good romance story about an immigrant who travels half-way around the world and falls in love, you’d be right; but you’d also be wrong. Because while Brooklyn is about an immigrant girl who travels half-way around the world and falls in love, it flips many of the tropes and clichés of that story on their heads – and that all starts with Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey.
Eilis is a young woman from a small town in Ireland overshadowed by her older sister and filled with ennui who gets the opportunity for a new life in New York. In Brooklyn, Eilis starts to realize her own power by taking classes, getting a job, and finding a boyfriend. But just as her life in America begins to click together, she’s summoned back to Ireland.
What makes Brooklyn different from so many other versions of this story is that there’s no great tragedy in this story. When Eilis leaves Ireland, it’s not due to war or famine; and when she returns, almost everything is right where she left it. In New York, Eilis has a support system and is immediately set up with a home, a job, and begins to make friends. And once in a relationship with Tony (Emory Cohen), there’s never an instance of misunderstanding or conflict.
Eilis’, and the movie’s true conflict starts in the second half, when, after rocketing up to the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy, she has to decide where she wants to belong. Because the first half sets up that it’s not Brooklyn that made Eilis happy, that gave her a home and a companion; Brooklyn just challenged her to self-actualize. The first half of Brooklyn shows us Eilis realize herself as a smart, independent, beautiful, and motivated young woman who has taken almost complete control of her life and her relationships. And when she returns to Ireland to find out that she can have the same life she had in Brooklyn, with a job and a boyfriend, but without the homesickness; all of the movie’s tension becomes about Eilis’ choice.
And despite these seemingly low stakes, there are heartbreaking moments in the back-half of this movie because of how the movie sets up one of these two perfectly good choices as the wrong choice, and how close Eilis comes to making it. And that’s one part of the genius of having almost no conflict anywhere else in the film. Because it allows us to care about Eilis’ life in Brooklyn over her life in Ireland. Not only can she be happy in Brooklyn, but so would Tony, who the movie sets up as perfectly kind, lovable, dependable, and in love with Eilis.
Brooklyn reaches the emotional highs it does because it never dips into tragedy, instead showing us how happy these characters can all be and threatening them with a promise of something even better if they give up what they have. And, not having been one, nor wishing to reduce the struggles of actual immigrants, but that feels emotionally true whether you’re coming in through Ellis Island without a penny to your name or flying into JFK to move into a corner office – immigration is making that choice between home and opportunity, knowing you might never be able to go back.