‘Colewell’ examines the opportunities and heartache of change

“Colewell” (2019). Cast: Karen Allen, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hannah Gross, Daniel Jenkins, Craig Walker, Malachy Cleary. Director: Tom Quinn. Screenplay: Tom Quinn. Web site. Trailer.

Change – some of us dread it, while others among us welcome it with open arms. Whichever camp we fall into, however, we all have one thing in common – we have to make adjustments in our lives when change makes its appearance. How well that goes (or doesn’t go) depends on how we approach what confronts us and how well it integrates into our existence, a challenge faced by an aging postmaster in the thoughtful character study, “Colewell.”

For 35 years, Nora Pancowski (Karen Allen) has enjoyed a comfortable, predictable, enjoyable routine, but now, quite unexpectedly, she has come to a major crossroad in her life. The 65-year-old manager of the post office in rural Colewell, Pennsylvania has been informed that the facility is being closed due to U.S. Postal Service budget cuts. She’s now up against the prospect of retiring or taking a position at a postal facility in another town, one that will force her to relocate or face a long daily bus commute. And she doesn’t know what to do; she’s not ready to retire, but she’s not prepared for starting over in such a radical new way, given that the Colewell post office operates out of her own home under contract with the USPS.

Nora’s not the only one affected by this news. Local residents see the post office as the center of the community, using it as a friendly, informal meeting place and not just as where they get their stamps. Closing the facility would have a major impact on the sense of connection among the residents of Colewell, a notion that postal officials enforcing the decision (Daniel Jenkins, Craig Walker) have no concept of. And, for Nora, the closure would be particularly difficult, considering that she lives alone and has few friends except for her customers and fellow postal employee, Charles (Kevin J. O’Connor), who makes the daily bulk mail delivery to the facility.

Colewell residents are not about to take this news lying down, however, retaining a lawyer (Malachy Cleary) to fight the decision. Nora quietly supports the effort but does not become actively involved in the legal dealings for fear that her participation might jeopardize her retirement benefits or job prospects with the USPS. And, as the townsfolk vociferously come to her defense during a community meeting on the subject, she’s emotionally overwhelmed by everything that’s come down, stunned by developments that have hit her so quickly and so intensely. However, despite the fervent efforts of Colewell residents, they’re all for naught, their arguments falling on the deaf ears of the Postal Service bureaucrats.

Strangely, it’s actually somewhat ironic that Nora is reluctant to embrace this impending change. When younger, she had quite the sense of wanderlust, hitchhiking all over and living the life of an unattached free spirit. However, once she met her husband and settled down in Colewell, she felt a sense of grounding come over her, a feeling that she had finally found a place she could call home. At the time of the USPS announcement, Nora’s husband is no longer in the picture (his absence never definitively explained), but that doesn’t change her feelings for the place she calls home – and her desire to stay put.

Despite the disruption this announcement causes, this scenario gives Nora much to think about, especially when she receives a visit from Ella (Hannah Gross), a metaphorical embodiment of Nora’s younger self. Ella, it seems, is a hitchhiker who travels the country much as Nora once did, stopping off for temporary stays at the homes of a network of friends, like Nora. Over dinner one night, Nora and Ella discuss their respective lives and pasts, giving them each an opportunity to ponder their choices and to consider their futures. But even the benefits of hindsight and a sounding board don’t make matters any easier for Nora as she faces what is arguably the most difficult decision of her life.

Change, by its nature, is often disruptive. In many cases, despite the upheaval, it’s frequently positive, showing us new ways of doing things and improving our quality of life. However, in other instances, change can be devastating, especially when it results in a wholesale transformation and drastically affects those not prepared for it. Yet, as the old adage maintains, change is the only constant in our lives, so it really shouldn’t come as any great surprise when it occurs.

So why does it seem like such a shock when change shows up on our doorstep? It’s probably because we become set in our ways, having grown comfortable with our circumstances. We trust that life will go on as we’ve always known it, content to see the preservation and perpetuation of the existence we’ve come to embrace. But why does this happen? Why are we so resistant to shifts in our lives and routines? Why is it so difficult to adjust to change? Is it a matter of complacency, or is it something else entirely?

While comfort and contentment can certainly explain part of this equation, they don’t necessarily tell the whole story. To a great degree, resistance often arises from our belief that circumstances will remain the same without alteration. And recognizing that is significant, for our beliefs provide the basis of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon this resource in manifesting the reality we experience. That includes beliefs associated with the continuity of our existence, notions that can become so powerful and persistent over time that they might even spawn beliefs espousing a denial of the possibility of change. Such developments can lead to a rather rude awakening for those not expecting it when it appears.

Yet, if we use our beliefs to create our reality, that means our beliefs are also the source of the change that manifests in our lives. The outcome originates with us, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. And such a lack of awareness may make dealing with these developments difficult. It’s as if we’re sucker-punched by our own consciousness, leaving us confused, disillusioned and upset – especially when we find out who and what is behind these radical shifts in our reality. One can only imagine how Nora would feel about this if she were to realize who was ultimately driving the change that seems to have been so capriciously and unceremoniously thrust upon her and her world.

So, if we’re so averse to having such circumstances materialize in our lives, why do we manifest them for ourselves in the first place? As with any creation, the reasons are our own, and it’s up to us to figure out why we’ve drawn them to us. However, one possible explanation has to do with one of the cornerstone principles of the conscious creation process – that everything is in a constant state of becoming, continually evolving from one manifestation to the next as existence seeks to discover itself and all of its possible permutations through our respective life experiences. Should that unfolding be stifled or allowed to stagnate, though, a tremendous pressure to clear that metaphysical blockage may build up, eventually erupting in a burst of tremendous change, a measure designed to get the evolutionary process back on track. Such breakthroughs can be quite jarring, to say the least, and their impact may be overwhelming, especially to those who try to keep these developments from occurring by erecting belief walls to prevent them from occurring. One can only imagine the disruption and disorientation that can result in such scenarios, something that Nora and the residents of Colewell find out for themselves when they receive the USPS closure notice.

Obviously this development affects Nora most since it impacts her livelihood, her home, her connection to her community, and, most importantly, her future. And, admittedly, that’s a lot of change being thrown at her all at once. So why would she attract so much upheaval into her life in one fell swoop? Again, her reasons are her own, but the film provides us with some possible clues.

Given that Nora’s life has been virtually unchanged for nearly four decades, a good case could be made for the need to clear the evolutionary blockage that has been allowed to settle in and prevent new growth and development. On some level, Nora’s subconscious may have decided that this situation had to be rectified, even if it meant imposing change through drastic means. Viewers get hints of this in the film, such as during her dinner with Ella, when Nora reminisces about her hitchhiking days, a period in her life when she wasn’t tied down and freely followed her impulses to go where she wished whenever the spirit moved her. Ella’s very presence serves as a reminder of this as well, prompting Nora to reflect on the carefree lifestyle she once so readily relished. Maybe Nora needs to get some of that back, considering that she’s put it on hold for so long. That’s particularly true in light of her advancing age; at 65, how many more opportunities will she have for being able to freely and easily examine unexplored aspects of her existence? If she’s like most of us, she probably doesn’t want to come to the end of her life with regrets for not having pursued interests and adventures that she passed up for the sake of familiar comfort and contentment.

While taking advantage of those unexamined opportunities may not be easy for a senior who’s allowed herself to grow contented with her longstanding circumstances, that’s not to say it’s impossible. After all, Nora proved her resourcefulness to herself in her youth, and there’s no reason to believe that she can’t tap into that again. It may require her to become creative in her approaches, thinking outside the box and pushing through seemingly intractable limitations. At the very least, it necessitates that she look at her future as having more choices than just retirement or relocation. Conceiving other options could indeed take some work, but, if she puts her mind (and beliefs) to it, she just might hit upon something unexpectedly wonderful, making her a more effective conscious creator – and building an even better life for herself. Whatever happens, though, the outcome rests with her – and whether she’s open to seeking it out.

This quiet, meditative character study thoughtfully examines the difficulty that can come when changes are imposed on those least equipped to handle such drastic developments late in life. While not much happens in this story, and while some aspects of the narrative are not fleshed out as fully as they could have been, the film nevertheless presents an insightful and compassionate look at coping with transition, a tale brought to life through the superb and understated lead performance of Karen Allen. It also tells the story of an aging but formidable woman, one who has more power than she gives herself credit for, a tale reminiscent of the protagonist in the independent offering “Diane” (2019). To that end, this is not a film where viewers should expect a lot of bells and whistles. But, like a good book and a warm blanket, it’s the kind of picture that’s perfect for curling up with on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a touching and heart-tugging drama filled with beautiful imagery and warm, loving characters, the kind who, like the small towns where they live, are all too unfortunately (and all too rapidly) disappearing from the landscape these days. The picture is available in various home viewing formats, including on cable and satellite TV, where it seems to have found a welcome home.

Even though this independent 2019 offering didn’t receive much fanfare, it did not go unnoticed in award competitions. Most notably, “Colewell” earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations for Allen’s stellar performance as best female lead and for the contest’s John Cassavettes Award, an honor bestowed to the best picture made for a film with a budget of $500,000 or less.

These days, it seems there are countless Noras and Colewells in the world, and their stories are indeed heart-wrenching. At the same time, though, these upheavals need not be the end of that world, either; it all depends on what we do with what we’ve been handed. The all-too-familiar images of making lemonade and seeing the glass as half-full readily come to mind, notions that some may take as modestly appeasing but ultimately clichéd sentiments. Nevertheless, there are grains of truth in those ideas, and they can be put to use to reverse our circumstances. And, if employed successfully, they just might bring us better news than anything we’ve ever received in the mail.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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