Leading up to Sandra’s revelation is a harried and fragmented sequence of scenes, showing Sandra’s desperate struggle to keep her family afloat. Squatting in a hotel room, she searches for housing, works two jobs, and drops the kids off at her ex-husband’s every weekend for court-ordered visitation. She cleans house for Peggy, an elderly woman (Harriet Walter) who had employed Sandra’s mother before her. All is chaos for Sandra. Initial help comes from an unexpected source.
Finding people to build the house with her makes up the majority of “Herself.” Sometimes help comes by accident and/or chance, and sometimes by Sandra making a direct “ask.” In line at the hardware store, disoriented by the clerk’s rude manner when she asks a simple question about supplies, Sandra meets Aido (Conleth Hill), retired former contractor. Sandra asks if he would help her. He turns her down. But he knew Gary, and has a horrible opinion of Gary, so he can’t help but feel for Sandra. (These scenes highlight a common aspect of Irish life: Talk to someone for 10 minutes, and you’ll find out you have a couple people in common.) Sandra must be persistent in the face of towering odds. She has to ask people to help her for free. All the while, Gary looms as an ever-present menace, protective restraining order or no.
Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed “Mamma Mia!,” is not afraid of reaching for big emotions, utilizing inspirational needle-drops and montages that show the house coming into existence. But there’s something else going on here, something that makes all of this a deeper and more powerful story. Part of it is about teamwork: this is not a professional construction crew and nobody knows what they’re doing. But they figure it out. With this, comes intense pleasure of building something with your own hands, of doing something nobody thinks you can do, or nobody wants you to do. For various reasons, Sandra has to keep the house a secret: from her ex-husband, from social services, from everyone.
“Herself” has embedded within it a biting commentary about how bureaucracies—such as welfare and/or social services—tend to keep people in the cycle, as opposed to helping them rise out of it. Bureaucracies drift towards the gigantic, the overly-complicated, requiring endless confusing forms and a baffling maze of hoops to jump through in order to get one tiny thing accomplished. No wonder people give up. Dystopian films like “Brazil,” or dystopian novels like 1984 and The Trial show the end result of bureaucracy run amok. You are punished if you want to make things better for yourself. Sandra buckles under the weight of this.