This is a great little film from 2006, following imdb. I believe it’s the first feature by director Christopher Rowley, and he does a nice job. The tenor of the whole thing, to my eyes, is a quiet, unassuming, project, one that doesn’t put on a lot of airs but which still gives its stars weighty enough roles in what are otherwise rather cliche situations. It’s formulaic, I mean, but still eminently watchable and thoroughly enjoyable. Distributed by Fox (Searchlight?), it looks like it had an indie budget but adheres to Hollywood formulas. And in this case that’s fine.
The plot is a road movie about a recent widow (Jessica Lange) and her two friends (Kathy Bates and Joan Allen) as they travel from Idaho to southern California to attend her husband’s funeral, held by the adult daughter of his first marriage. Her dramatic conflict is between scattering her husband’s ashes in accordance with his wishes and offending her step-daughter, who has the power to throw her out of her house. Like all road movies it’s a journey of discovery as Lange comes to terms with her grief and learns to embrace life again, spreading bits of her husband’s remains in some of the most scenic places in the Great Basin. The film’s title, in fact, refers both to the prehistoric lake that once covered this entire region and, more specifically, the convertible that takes the women on their journey.
The filmmakers were not LDS but the main characters are. Two of them are identified as such in the finished film, while the DVD bonus features confirm that Lange’s character was intended as Mormon as well. The film’s treatment of Mormonism is one of the best things about it: it depicts these women as real characters, each with a different relationship to their faith, and it dispenses with stereotypes of close-minded, provincial, or thoughtlessly obedient adherents. Joan Allen’s character is the most faithful member of the trio–the others have no compunction drinking coffee, swearing, or pursuing men–and, as expected, the thrust of her character arch is in opening herself up to experiences like drinking coffee and gambling that have previously been denied her. That’s fairly formulaic and expected, but I give the film props for not having her lose her faith in any way in consequence. She remains a faithful, active Latter-day Saint to the end of the film, and a remarkably compassionate and tolerant one at that; she’s just now a more experienced Latter-day Saint. Her attempt to give a hitchhiker her personal copy of the Book of Mormon is really touching (in a quietly comic if slowly paced scene), and she gets a few good lines like “You guys don’t think I’m any fun, do you?” undercutting the potential stereotype.
So that was really refreshing after Heber Holiday. This is not a major film, and it has its problems, but with actresses like these there’s a lot going on under the surface and that carries the narrative through its expected plot points. It’s also emblematic of how the Church has been taken more seriously, and depicted with more nuance, since the 1980s. Such rounded Mormon characters were once a real anomaly, as in Wagon Master in 1950, but they’re now more common than the stereotypically puritan characters that used to populate the screen. I’m looking for a good name for this period in Mormon film history, and I think this depiction of rounded, flawed characters is the dominant characteristic of the past twenty years.
Only about ten Mormon films left to see until I’ve covered everything I want for the Mormon Cinema book! A light at the end of the ten-year-long tunnel. Anyone know how to get ahold of James Benning’s Deseret? I’m to the point where I’m going to just try emailing him.