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Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) sits on a bench near a bus stop and recounts his life’s adventures to any who will listen. He’s a man with less than average intelligence but is not without great personality and presence. Throughout his life, he’s been witness to some truly incredible historical events, many that have shaped modern American history, from Elvis Presley to the Vietnam War to southern segregation and the fall of a president to the inspiration of a smiley face t-shirt catchphrase, he’s incidentally been part of the great cultural landscape of the nation through several defining decades. And why does he sit on the bench in front of the bus stop? He’s on his way to see Jenny Curran (Robin Wright) of course, a woman he’s known since they were kids, and the very love of his life. But how important is she?
There is a lot about Forrest that is symbolic, from his IQ to his naivety. He represents much of the American attitudes and durability through some very turbulent years. He’s iconic for his inspiring personality, unflappable diligence and incorruptible fortitude, even as much that surrounds him remains in constant imbalance. Forrest experiences hardships but through his eyes, they never seem so much, and we delight in his progressive and endearing strength.
At a young age, as others refuse to take him as an equal, his lack of smarts and the need for encumbering legs braces keeping him in the peripheral, he meets little Jenny on the bus who lets him sit with her. She is welcoming and warm and honest and little Forrest is instantly smitten … for the rest of his life.
Through the years, as they grow to adults, she weaves her way in and out of this life, coming and going, sometimes like a summer breeze and other times like a hurricane. But through it all, she remains the foundation of what Forrest knows as love beyond that for his mother.
As we watch Forrest move from one incredible experience to another, we also witness Jenny at times, small vignettes that paint a very different journey from his, one laced with drug abuse, rebellion and outcry, sexual exploration and more. She is the underground, the layer of American history that lay in continual upheaval with as much to say about history as that which Forrest reveals. Like a mirror to his world, she is the other side, the battle weary soldier in a fight that always runs simmering under the larger path that dominates the world Forrest lives in.
Late in the film, Jenny and Forrest come together once again and there is a maturity to them that stems from two very divergent roads. Both have been part of great swaths of the American journey in the past few decades though each have been impacted in startlingly different ways. Forrest has met with enormous financial success, though he is most likely unaware of how so or why it matters. Jenny struggles to hold down a waitressing job. She has with her a secret that when revealed to Forrest is a powerfully emotional moment that reshapes everything. Actually, she has two secrets, one of great joy and the other far, far from it.
Now, many might see Jenny as a bad person, a girl who has for years and years forsaken Forrest and his love, breaking his heart and using him though in truth, that is unfair. She understands Forrest more than any other (aside from Momma), not just realizing his vulnerabilities but protecting them, and while she crashes upon him like waves on a rocky shore over and over, each of these encounters have great significance. The most impactful is a day the two take a walk behind his house and end up at a familiar haunt. It is here, in the shadow of her past, where an often missed moment of revelation for Forrest occurs and one of the film’s most poignant and tragic moments is given full circle.
Standing in front of the old and dilapidated – now abandoned – home of her childhood, Jenny is struck by its site, flooded by the memories it conjures. In an act of sudden hostility, she lashes out, first throwing her shoes at the small ramshackled building, then in frantic rage, stones at her feet, hurling them with terrible ferocity before collapsing in the dirt, weeping. It shocks Forrest, unaware of the real history of Jenny, how as a little girl, her widower father sexually abused her and that the house is where the real demons of her past live.
This moment is monumental in Jenny’s life and in the story as well, even as it gets a little lost in the overall picture. It’s brevity is one factor, a choice that actually makes sense, but its impact, when viewed more closely, is powerful. Wright’s performance is quite good through the entire film, though naturally was overshadowed by Hanks’ Oscar winning turn in the lead. In the scene, Jenny finally stares down at her hardened and hurtful past, too young when it happened to stop it, at the whim of a cruel and bitter father. It matters greatly.
Director Robert Zemeckis is a master storyteller and while exposition is entirely absent, we understand everything that is happening with Jenny here, including the remarkable symbolism. That is best illustrated in a pane of glass that serves as target for the final few rocks Jenny flings at the house, the first few going wide and smacking the crumbling wood siding before the last smashes through in a satisfying crash. Notice how Zemeckis begins with the house entire before each throw draws us closer and closer until the rock finally lands on point. It will do little in healing Jenny, but it does give her (and the audience) a moment of release, where she can break something that is tied to that pain. It’s magnificent filmmaking. Notice too though – something most important – that the last rock she throws goes wide. She’ll never smash it all. (But guess who does later.)
She clearly blames the ghosts that live in this rundown home as cause for many of the crooked roads she has taken, and we can see how many of the choices she has made are related to and in justice for those acts, from her attachment to the hippie movement and anti-government war protests to her experiments with mind altering drugs, sexual abandon, and even a chilling moment on the edge of a tall balcony. She searches for release and freedom but also fights against authority, battles she never wins and always under strong unstable men. Forrest is the only anchor, and yet in many way is tied to that past. For Jenny, there truly is no escape. Like Forrest says in thought while he sits beside the crying jenny after she collapses to the dirt, “Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”
It’s an insightful observation by a man who is highly adept at such things, even if he can’t always grasp the meaning behind what he sees. He understands that she is in pain and that the rocks help but that’s all he knows and in truth, all he needs to know. To sit by her and just be there, he is the comfort Jenny yearns for, a man who is all things different from everything she has ever come to expect in men.
Forrest Gump is full of little quips and quotes, with everyone’s favorite and perhaps most famous being “Life is like a box of chocolates …” You know the rest. And while that saying is indeed meaningful and easily identifiable for many, in watching the film again, paying far more attention to Jenny, there is something deeply moving about her odyssey, the dignity she fights for and the weaknesses she succumbs too. This moment, where there aren’t enough rocks, extends far beyond Jenny and speaks to many for whom she represents. She is the voice and fury of others who have too few rocks to throw and as intended, is a kind of reflection about darkness in the country’s history as well. Jenny is a hugely important element in the story of Forrest Gump and while she is often misunderstood, her role in both his growth and that of the times they live in is immeasurable.