A blonde woman in her fifties wearing a black shirt and a denim jacket speaks before a studio audience.

SXSW 2022 Review: “Atlas of the Heart”

Year: 2022
Runtime: 40 minutes
Director: Paul Dugdale
Written by: Brené Brown
Showrunner: Meaghan Rady
Executive Producers: Brené Brown; Jesse Ignjatovic; Evan Prager; Barb Bialkowski; Jared Morell; Meaghan Rady
Starring: Brené Brown
By Valerie Kalfrin

In a world where we scroll to find the right GIF or emoji for a social media post, best-selling author and researcher Brené Brown wants to give us the words to express ourselves better.

“Language is the greatest portal that we have,” Brown says in the pilot of her new HBO Max series, “Atlas of the Heart,” shown at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. “If you understand the connection between how people think, feel, and behave, you understand everything.”

Named after Brown’s most recent book, the series appears to follow an Oprah-like talk-show format, with Brown speaking before a studio audience with occasional guests. (Only the pilot was available to view.)

Because critic Roger Ebert once called movies “empathy machines,” Brown uses film and TV clips to demonstrate certain feelings. In addition to broadening viewers’ emotional vocabulary, she’ll provide a framework for using these tools.

While this might strike some as a bit woo-woo, Brown has two decades of experience to back up her advice. A research professor at the University of Houston, where she studies empathy, vulnerability, courage, and shame, she says that our connection to other people is only as deep as our connection to ourselves.

A San Antonio native, Brown peppers her comments with a “y’all” now and then. She’s an affable host and storyteller, weaving humor and a down-to-earth demeanor between inspirational quotes and research. She’s also a film fan, gushing over some performances such as Jon Favreau’s rant to a food critic in 2014’s “Chef.”

A white man with brown curly hair, a goatee, and a black T-shirt bends over to address a man seated at a restaurant table. The man with the goatee looks stunned and angry.
Jon Favreau as chef Carl Casper in 2014’s “Chef” was one of Brown’s emotional examples. / Courtesy of YouTube

Because we’re often taught that emotions get in the way, we don’t develop the words to recognize them, she said. She cited one survey of 7,000 people who found that they could recognize just three: being happy, being said, or being ticked off.

This makes us also lousy at reading others’ emotions because we base our reactions on our own culture, behavior, and backstory, Brown said. She showed a clip of a confrontation between Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in 2016’s “Fences” and asked the audience what the characters were feeling. The responses ranged wide, from anger to disappointment to shame.

Brown was careful about her selection of clips. Although she discussed sad movies, showing an image from 2009’s Pixar film “Up” of Carl with his late wife, Ellie, she wouldn’t show clips of sad scenes that could be triggering, calling that “exploitative.”

Likewise, while discussing anguish, which goes beyond sadness, she stuck to works of art. Anguish is “an almost unbearable and traumatic swirl of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness,” she said, causing us to crumple to the ground. She showed a photograph of sculptures by Suse Ellen Lowenstein called “Dark Elegy.” Lowenstein lost her 21-year-old son Alexander in December 1988 aboard Pan Am Flight 103, which terrorists exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The sculptures depict the moment that other mothers and wives learned about their loved ones’ deaths aboard that flight.

“We need to understand what people are experiencing when it’s so bad, it comes for our bones,” Brown said. “How do we help? How do we support?”

A Mexican boy about twelve years old with black hair, brown eyes, a red hoodie, white undershirt, jeans and sneakers crouches and looks awestruck. A raggedy dog with a floppy tongue is beside him. They're on an orange carpet of flower petals.
Miguel (left) with his dog, Dante, sees the Land of the Dead for the first time in 2017’s “Coco.” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

From there, Brown shifted moods, showing a montage of clips such as Miguel seeing the Land of the Dead in “Coco,” Killmonger seeing the sunrise in Wakanda in “Black Panther,” Maria twirling atop a mountain in “The Sound of Music,” and E.T. and his bicycling friends taking flight in “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”

Watching those, audience members said they felt excitement, wonder, joy, and awe. Awe and wonder are two emotions key to the human experience, Brown said, and their difference is subtle: With awe, we want to watch something unfold while wonder breeds curiosity.

It’s impossible to evaluate the whole series based on one episode, but Brown’s goal is admirable. This is difficult work, she said, but the payoff is connection, which “exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”

She doesn’t believe it’s possible to walk in another person’s shoes, she noted. “I can’t walk in the shoes of someone that doesn’t have my privilege around my education, around my race, around the resources I have access to. I can’t do that, and to do it ends up causing people pain.”

Instead, Brown said, we should believe others instead of feeling threatened by their truth. “Believe people when they tell us what their experience felt like, and when that does not reconcile with our own experience.”

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