The Sugarland Express (1974), directed by Steven Spielberg

When I was in ninth grade, my friend Sammy, a self-proclaimed songwriter, very seriously attempted to start a musical group. I was invited to join because I had a reasonably good voice, was an aficionado of rock and roll, and had Elvis sideburns and lots of hair, which made me a very cool persona back then. Our group of four vocalists practiced for a couple of months and then Sammy told us that an agent was coming to audition us. We sang and had visions of stardom. The audition was brief; after one song, the agent told us in polite but clear words that we were not up to professional standards. Sammy was devastated because the project was his baby. For me, the rejection simply meant I now could move on to other things that interested me. I was not invested in the fantasy so I could easily move back to reality.

I was reminded of this teenage memory as I watched The Sugarland Express, which tells the story of two adults who think like kids, and build a future around a fantasy that will not materialize. Lou Jean, mother of baby Langston, had been in prison for committing petty crimes. The state welfare agency has awarded custody of her child to foster parents in Sugarland, Texas. Her husband, Clovis, presently in prison also for petty crimes, is scheduled to be released in four months. Lou Jean, now out of jail, is desperate and compels Clovis to break out of prison before his scheduled release to help reunite her with her baby in Sugarland. She has a one-track mind and refuses to see the complex reality that awaits her. Buoyed by initial success through taking a state trooper hostage, she naively assumes that she will be able to take back her baby.

The journey to Sugarland is filled with humorous and dangerous detours and Lou Jean and Clovis become folk heroes along the way. Captain Tanner, the law enforcement officer in charge of the pursuit, sees them as misguided kids, and encourages them to surrender and release their hostage before bad things happen. But their inability to separate fantasy from reality prevents them from seeing the truth.

Being positive and optimistic does not guarantee success. Outcomes are often determined by other factors. Although optimism in the face of troubles is a Jewish mode of thinking, optimism is usually grounded in some reality. Jacob’s ladder is directed toward the heavens, but the ladder is firmly planted on the ground. The Sages clearly tells us not to rely on miracles. It is wonderful if they come, but it is not part of an intelligent strategy. Certainly we should pray for positive outcomes, but we cannot depend on prayers alone, nor should we be devastated if our prayers are not answered. We cannot presume to see things from the aspect of eternity and sometimes our requests, however sincere, are denied.

King Solomon observes that foolishness results from a youthful, short-sighted approach to life, an approach which presumes that just because we make the effort, the desired result will follow. Proverbs somberly states that a person who wanders from the intelligent way will ultimately rest in the congregation of the dead. This is the kind of sobering wisdom Captain Tanner tries to impart to Lou Jean, who insists on believing in her alternate reality. The Sugarland Express reminds us of the possible pitfalls of single mindedness, and to always consider the real obstacles in front of us.

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