Homeschooling is nothing new in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of families have been doing it for hundreds of years for various reasons. Whether it be for religious reasons, to give their children more freedom as the travel together, or to give their children an edge that traditional schools won’t (see: No Dream Deferred: Why Black and Latino Families are Choosing Home School), every parent who homeschools has their reasons. June Pruitt (Anna Gunn) is no exception to this, but June is representative of so many parents whose homeschooling, and overall personalities, are detrimental and abusive to their children.
June has been homeschooling her children Bethany (Ashley Rickards) and Shayne (Martin Spanjers) ever since she caught her closeted ex-husband, Dale (Diedrich Bader), fucking Bethany’s seventh grade music teacher years ago. Instead of accepting that he was the issue, divorcing, and moving on with her life, June instead chose to the route of an extended, performative grief that involved her own children as supporting characters in her self-martyrdom. June doesn’t just homeschool her children, but she also micromanages all areas of their lives, not allowing them to have friends, interact with neighbours, or even step out onto their own lawn without her supervision.
Fast forward through several trying years of this and it’s officially the day of Bethany’s “graduation” from Pruitt homeschool. The 18-year-old is visibly stifled by her suffocating mother, a mother who is in turn suffocated by Bethany’s deeply critical grandmother (Jenny O’Hara). Generational abuse is clearly at play here, and June uses her children to exert the sort of control that she lacks in her relationship with both her mother and her ex-husband, as well as her life in general.
But Bethany has dreams beyond the four walls of her oppressive home. She wants to have friends, to venture out on her own, and her greatest wish is to go to be a clothing designer. When June discovers her daughters ambitions, however, she belittles and humiliates her to the breaking point, prompting Bethany to leave and flee to the home of her deadbeat dad and his lover, Chip (Haley Joel Osment). Bethany’s relationship with her father is strained from years of his abandonment and June’s manipulation, but she finds solace, and her first real friend, in Chip, who appreciates her and believes in her talent for design.
As we watch Bethany play catch up, navigating things like a first job, peer pressure, and dating years after so many girls her age, we see how deeply June’s helicopter parenting and emotional abuse, as well as her father’s neglect, has affected her and stunted her personal growth. But Bethany is like a weed growing through the cracks in the pavement. She is strong, resourceful, determined, and a quick study. In spite of, or maybe even because of her family’s dysfunctional dynamic, Bethany is determined to go to FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising), and design a future for herself that is free of constraints and limitations.
Sassy Pants is a sensitive, polarizing subject matter packaged as a comedy-drama, but this only makes it all the richer. Rickards and Gunn both give performances so deeply poignant and sincere that they often bring tears to the eyes, but the audience never feels so bombarded with pain that the movie is rendered unwatchable. This small, indie picture, like so many of them, went under the radar, but will certainly stay with you for years.
I give this one 4.25 stars.