‘Moving On’: Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin Film Dives Into the Difficult Issue of Repressed Generational Trauma

Moving On

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in a scene from 'Moving On,' a dark buddy comedy that explores the fallout of repressed trauma from 50 years earlier. Photo: Aaron Epstein

For Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, revenge is a dish served cold — very, very cold. Fifty years congealed, in fact. But like their new movie tagline says: It’s never too late to get even.

Fresh from playing football fanatics in 80 for Brady — still in theatres and in the top 15 earners at the box office — and after recently concluding seven Emmy-nominated years together on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, the dynamic duo reunite in the smart dark comedy Moving On (which premières in U.S. theatres March 17 and — hopefully — in Canada this spring).

Expecting a simple but entertaining revenge fantasy, albeit one rounded out with physical comedy and zingers from two screen legends, I emerged from the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival world première last fall briefly at a loss for words. For a movie billed as a buddy comedy, it’s got serious undertones. I joked it off by dubbing it “Only Murders in the Building by way of bumbling Promising Old Woman.”

Fonda, 85, and Tomlin, 83, have been friends nearly 50 years and the movie was written for them (at Tomlin’s request) by About a Boy’s co-writer and co-director Paul Weitz, who also directed Tomlin in the road trip comedy Grandma. Because the longtime pals have on-screen chemistry to spare, Moving On was one of the hottest acquisition titles at TIFF.

The premise is as follows: Claire (Fonda) is visiting from Ohio to attend the funeral of her college roommate, where she runs into Evelyn (Tomlin), an old friend from whom she’s been estranged. Together, they plan to exact revenge on their deceased pal’s widower Howard (Malcolm McDowell) for long-ago events that altered the contours of Claire’s life. Whether or not they get the hit job done is not the point. It’s about why the pair takes justice into their own hands: an octogenarian’s long-buried and repressed trauma.

Self-deprecating humour and Tomlin’s impeccably timed sarcasm are good foils for Fonda’s earnest nemesis, but the movie’s serious and believable emotional core never wavers.

One of the many reasons to admire Fonda is her track record of making entertainment with substance. After she became an activist, Fonda’s film projects began to explicitly dovetail with the socially relevant issues that interested her. Through her production company IPC Films , for example, she produced The China Syndrome (about the threat of nuclear fallout) and Coming Home — about the plight and frustrations of Vietnam veterans (it earned her a second Best Actress Oscar). Even her workout tapes were a means of funding progressive political work.

The understated Moving On continues in that vein, though it’s never a polemic; the theme and tone will probably most remind audiences of the radical feminist hit 9 to 5 that she and Tomlin made with Dolly Parton in 1980. That black comedy, you may recall, was inspired by the work of friend and fellow activist Karen Nussbaum, whose organization was an early advocate for working women’s rights. Its grim and broadly comic revenge fantasy was built around themes of exposing workplace sexual harassment and the gender pay gap — progressive ideas in their day that are sadly just as relevant an issue today.


Moving on, While Looking Back


What Moving On probes, with heightened emotion, is the potentially devastating effect of unresolved trauma in a generation known for internalizing trauma rather than processing it. Much went unidentified or undiagnosed and untreated.

Or, thinking back to a few years ago, an investigative article brought to light the credible theory that classic Hollywood actress Loretta Young only realized a fateful sexual encounter she had experienced as a young woman was date rape. According to the bombshell, before her death in 2000 at the age of 85, Young revealed to her family that she had probably been the victim of date rape from Call of the Wild co-star Clark Gable in 1935, when she was 23. At the time, the scandal that was hushed-up wasn’t one of sexual assault, however, but of an affair that produced a child — Judy Lewis, the daughter later “adopted” by Young but whispered about as their “secret love child” for decades.

Although dusted with fame, Young’s situation “also recalls the millions of unwanted sexual encounters that entire generations of women did not talk about, in part because they couldn’t: They literally did not have the language to do so,” the investigation posits, of a term that that didn’t come into usage until the 1980s. “The word ‘rape’ was too extreme — something that happened to women in back alleys. The introduction of ‘date rape’ into the vernacular gave a name for an experience that, to that point, had defied description, and thus reportage.”

American journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, 79, has in recent years written extensively about the fallout of a traumatic encounter with Donald Trump and allegations of rape that happened more than 25 years ago. In her 2019 book What Do We Need Men For? Carroll reveals that, after the alleged assault, she became celibate. “I was taught to laugh off sexual violence and believe that being raped was my own fault.”

“I am a member of the Silent Generation,” she writes in the book. “We do not flap our gums. We laugh it off and get on with life and kept quiet for decades.”

Moving On
Jane Fonda in a scene from ‘Moving On,’ in which her character reveals trauma inflicted on her decades earlier by the husband of her now-deceased friend. Photo: Aaron Epstein


It’s a group that experienced the Great Depression and whose perspective of depression and mental health tends to be associated with embarrassment and avoidance.

Fonda and Tomlin’s characters are both from that traditionalist silent generation, where the same stigma of having — let alone talking about — emotional baggage was prevalent. History has borne out that in spite of leading in self-actualization and civil rights, it’s also a cohort known for insufficient generational response to depression, postpartum depression, PTSD and assault. War veterans, for example, were sent to asylums for PTSD rather than helped within society. Women also often did not seek care for postpartum illness due to fears of being placed in a psychiatric hospital and separated from their husbands and children.

Yes, generations are convenient socially constructed categories, but they can be helpful for understanding attitudes and shifts over time. And the generational cohort that follows doesn’t fare much better. A broad psychological profile showed baby boomers often place a high priority on being self-sufficient and have traditionally viewed mental health treatment as a moral failure rather than a health problem. Contrast that with subsequent generations: according to a 2019 report from the American Psychiatric Association, gen-Z are more likely to have received treatment or gone to therapy (37 per cent) compared to millennials (35 per cent), gen-Xers (26 per cent), baby boomers (22 per cent), and the silent generation (15 per cent).

For a generation that lived through major world events yet wasn’t emotionally versed in the tools equipped to discuss them, reaching out for support and speaking about challenges can help process them. Since seniors’ health is primarily defined by their mental health (according to many studies, including this recent one on mental health conducted by The Boston Globe), these rare representational moments are important for opening the landscape and furthering meaningful conversations. Although ingrained attitudes to mental health have evolved since the Second World War, movies like Moving On help normalize the subject for older generations to process past trauma.

Two great acting dames gamely tackling serious issues with gallows humour are the spoonful of sugar — or more accurately in this case, vinegar — that helps the serious subject matter go down.