Maudie” ticks every box on the list of sad movie clichés, but it’s still absolutely beautiful. The true story of Maud Lewis, a beloved Canadian folk artist, belongs entirely to star Sally Hawkins, who brings Lewis’ physical afflictions, but more so her wry, vibrant spirit, vividly to life.  

Maud’s lot in life is laid out for the viewer in one masterfully written scene, in which we see her, swinging her feet and smoking a cigarette, on the front porch of her aunt’s house. Inside, her aunt and brother argue over who will be burdened with caring for Maud, when Maud quickly walks in and asserts herself. She reminds her brother of how she used to help him with math, while he bluntly tells her that he’s sold their family home. Her belongings are boxed up, and among them are paints. Her family insists that Maud, who suffers from arthritis that affects her posture and gait, cannot care for herself.

Maud’s family may infantilize her, but she has an indomitable verve for life. That very night she sneaks out to a bar to listen to music and drink a beer. Of course, she is berated like a teenager by her heartless aunt, and described as an embarrassment to her family. With inspiring pluck, she seizes on the first opportunity she encounters to get out of her aunt’s house, even though that opportunity is unappealing at best.

Opportunity is in the form of gruff, illiterate fishmonger Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), who is also skillfully exposed to the audience through a brief but telling encounter with the shopkeeper where he posts a notice for a live-in maid. Even though she must do a little hop to reach it, Maud walks right over and grabs the notice.

Their relationship is fascinating but problematic since, particularly by any contemporary standards, Everett is often abusive to Maud. But there is something about Maud that is uniquely proud, even when she accepts unacceptable conditions, that makes a weird case for getting used to someone. Honestly, you feel uncomfortable pulling for the pair, but this is a true story that must simply be experienced. You have to eliminate “should” from the mix and accept that Maud Lewis’s incredibly open personality brought her what she needed from conditions that most would find unacceptable.

The very concept of needing a live-in maid in a house as tiny as Everett’s is almost laughable, and the pair are forced to share the only bed, which Everett points out is what everyone did at the orphanage where he grew up. At Maud’s insistence, this arrangement eventually leads to their marriage, and a great deal more about Maud’s past is eventually, heartbreakingly revealed.

Maud becomes a wife but also, more importantly, becomes an artist. She paints what she sees on what she has at hand, and nothing more than fidelity to her own vision eventually makes her famous. When she is true to herself, that self is so extraordinary that even the worst circumstances cannot dim her brightness.

Sally Hawkins’ Maud is simply indomitable, but it doesn’t look how we may expect it to look. She is no Wonder Woman, but she is nonetheless heroic. Hawkins is one of the most interesting actors working today, and I have always thought her supporting role in “Blue Jasmine” eclipsed even that of Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett. She is always nuanced, unexpected and totally fascinating.

“Maudie” is, above all, a fantastic vehicle for a fantastic actress. It is also a worthy true story that will leave you inspired to find satisfaction in life’s small moments, and to find out more about the real Maud Lewis.

“Maudie” is currently available to rent.