My wife and I saw the movie The Trip with friends recently, and of the many hilarious and occasionally poignant scenes, one in particular stayed with me enough that I tried to apply it to my son yesterday. The movie features two British actors/comedians who are spending a week traveling across England to experience some of the finest restaurants in order to write about them. The viewer gets the feeling that neither of the actors has really reached what each would consider the stardom that he is capable of, but one is clearly more frustrated by this than the other. So they get to talking about what price they would pay in order to win an Oscar. They even discuss whether they would allow one of their children to get a disease (non-fatal, of course), if it meant winning the award.

Which led me to ask a similar question to my son who, along with his wife, are in San Diego for a while before they return to Guatemala, where they teach. My son also makes movies, and I asked him to put himself in that scene from The Trip — if he knew his child would live, would he let the child suffer in exchange for winning an Oscar? Eventually he and my wife turned the table on me. How much suffering would I allow to gain a Pulitzer? It’s a great discussion. I won’t bore you with our conclusions (believe it or not, I was the most conservative of the three), but it did get me to thinking about the filmmaker Tom McCarthy, who portrays decision making better than most directors I’ve watched.

McCarthy attentitively listening to my question

McCarthy’s most recent film is Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti, and one of the takeaways from the movie is that little decisions matter. Giamatti makes some little decisions that he thinks no one will notice, and he even makes them for the right reasons. He’s trying to make ends meet and he’s trying to not stress his family. But, as McCarthy shows, little decisions lead to big consequences.

One of the main characters in another McCarthy movie, The Visitor, also is confronted with a decision. The decision he makes there cascades into many, many more significant events. I don’t want to give plots away here, so I recommend your watching both Win Win and The Visitor to see what I mean.

photos by Bronson Pate

I talked about this with McCarthy when he was in San Diego this spring, promoting Win Win. We talked about decisions, morality, and what it means to wrestle (sometimes literally) with your own inner angel or demon. You can read my interview with him in Risen Magazine here. Check out Risen Magazine anyway. They have some wonderful interviews and stories on pop culture through the prism of faith, hope and love.

Final word about Tom McCarthy: In addition to his being a marvelous filmmaker and director, he does some acting. He’s been in the movies Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and was the despicable newspaper reporter (thanks for making us look even worse, Tom) in season 5 of the television show The Wire. But what made me admire him even more, was his essay in the book Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me. The book is a collection of funny stories from comedians, many of which are pretty bawdy, but McCarthy’s stood out to me as one of the funniest and most skillfully written. Titled “Don’t Leave Too Much Room for the Holy Spirit,” he tells of finding the letters written to him decades earlier by the girl he longed for at a church youth camp. This is the girl he square-danced with, getting the courage to go to her after his camp counselor said, “So you should marshal forth into the dance tonight with the confidence of God’s perfection regardless of your size, your shape or your overbite!” That’s all the encouragement he needed.

Little decisions lead to big consequences — in movies, life, and square dances.