Find Your Center with Netflix's Joan Didion Documentary

Do you ever finish something— a book, an article, an album, a movie— and reach the end only to wish you experience the whole thing for the first time all over again? It’s a rare feeling, one that let’s us know that the art we just encountered is truly special. Between leaving home and juggling my first semester at college, it had been a while since I’d felt this way…that is, until I watched The Center Will Not Hold, the Netflix documentary about writer Joan Didion.

Now, I should back up and mention that I am a huge Didion fan. From her essay collections (Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are classics) to her novels (Play It As It Lays is not to be missed, nor is Democracy) to her memoirs, I’ll devour just about anything she’s written. Over the past several months, especially, Didion’s words have come to mean something particularly special to me; reading her work succeeds at what few pursuits have done lately, and that is relieving me from my own mind. With all that said, I went into watching the documentary on Didion’s life— which was released on Netflix in late October— with a mixed sense of excitement and trepidation. It might sound dramatic, but the whether or not I liked the film I’d been waiting for felt like a make-it-or-break-it moment.

Thankfully, my excitement won the day. The only time I moved during the film’s entire run was to wipe away the tears I was sure must be falling down my cheeks— and I’m not exaggerating. Directed by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne, The Center Will Not Hold has a profoundly intimate feel that’s rare for documentaries. In lieu of interviews, most of the film’s narration consists of Didion reminiscing with various friends and family, as well as commentary from some of her closest partners in life and work. I especially loved hearing Didion’s reflections on some of the most pivotal moments in her life as a writer and an individual, from her days tracking the youth movement in the Haight-Ashbury District to her life with her husband and daughter. The multi-faceted nature of Didion’s life, in fact, plays a key role in the film, and in my opinion leaves the biggest impact. When the credits rolled, I had the feeling that the woman on the camera was not “Joan Didion, the icon,” or even “Joan Didion, the writer.” She’s simply Joan Didion, a soul whose been to the trenches of life and back, and lives to tell the tale— over and over again.

One my favorite (and, admittedly, one of the most oft-repeated) Joan Didion quotes is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a beautiful sentiment because it’s true, that art cane provide the inspiration we need to persevere. If you’re in need of a new story, or are simply in the mood to moved, get yourself to Netflix, and hit play on The Center Will Not Hold. The rest, I promise you, can wait.