Sofia’s Sofa: Films where “nothing happens”

Sofia Hara, A&E Editor

When I was younger I would often spend the day at my Japanese grandmother’s house with my cousins. There weren’t many things to do at her house besides a couple of board games and a small collection of Studio Ghibli movies. So in consequence, my cousins and I would constantly rewatch these movies. One of the movies I grew up watching on repeat was called “My Neighbor Totoro.” In the film, two young girls growing up in the Japanese countryside befriend a forest spirit named Totoro. Besides that, there’s not a lot of action in the film. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen criticism of this movie for having “nothing happen” or having “no plot.” In general, having “nothing happen” is the main criticism for most Studio Ghibli movies. Despite this criticism, Studio Ghibli has been acclaimed for producing some of the best animated films of all time. So why are people so divisive over these kinds of movies?

Generally speaking, audiences tend to look for something exciting in their movie-going experience. They want to learn something new or sit on the edge of their seats; generally, they don’t want to fall asleep. In theory, movies where “nothing happens” sound like the exact opposite of what audiences want. In practice, however, these types of movies are usually more character-focused rather than plot-focused. Instead of showing a conflict and resolution, the movie shows development in character. Without this conflict and resolution it’s easy for audiences to believe that “nothing happens” in the movie. 

For example the movie “Ladybird” directed by Greta Gerwig (2017) shows the development of Christine “Ladybird” McPherson, a high school senior who is exploring her identity in opposition to her strong-willed mother. There is not an explicit conflict nor resolution in the movie. Instead it follows Christine over the course of a year and the relationships she forms. At least for me, “Ladybird” is a deeply cathartic movie to watch. As a high school senior I often feel isolated from adults for being too naive and isolated from my peers for seeing myself as more mature. I’m not quite a teenager but I’m not an adult either. “Ladybird” explores that same feeling and yet “nothing happens.” 

I’ve noticed that movies that are more character-focused tend to explore these niche feelings rather than movies that are more plot-focused. They aren’t afraid to deal with realistic themes, as opposed to more “exciting themes.” Studio Ghibli movies and “Ladybird” both deal with themes of maturing and the subtle shift between being afraid of growing up and accepting the inevitable future. 

These kinds of movies don’t need to be exciting: That’s not what real life is like. Real life isn’t perfect, it’s messy and emotional. The reason why I like movies where “nothing happens” is because it feels real. It’s almost like I can pause my own life for a couple of hours and enjoy someone else’s life, even if it isn’t ideal. 

“Nothing happens” in the movie, and yet so many things change during the movie. The characters mature but they’re not any more perfect than who they were at the beginning of the movie. I’d like to believe that everyone fits that dynamic: they grow up and learn, but that doesn’t make them any more of a good person than before. 

While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, movies where “nothing happens” is one of my favorite film genres. I highly recommend everyone to watch these kinds of movies as a lesson in enjoying the little things in life. Not everything in life needs to be over the top in order to be enjoyable; sometimes real life can be more exciting than what you see in the movies!