Hollywood does white trash
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Though taken from the eponymous book of the same name, the hacked up saga of a writer from a dysfunctional nomadic family commands grudging respect by force of the above-average performances of the key players, Brie Larson and Naomi Watts, as well as sour, volatile, vitriolic Woody Harrelson as the soused paterfamilias of a mess of children. He cannot hold a job but means well, despite bouts of bullying and manipulativeness, some cruelty, self-inflicted wounds, and helpless self-loathing. (Interpretation: He couldn't drink so much if he did not want to drown his lack of achievement and dissatisfactions in brown-bottle redemption.)
The long-suffering mother played by Watts is a painter, though her gifts are scarcely noticed or respected by her soused spouse.
The eldest of the four children is played tremulously and wisely by Brie Larsen, so tremendous in Room. The settings are authentically ramshackle, as the paterfamilias, alcoholic and short of jack, expands the imaginations of his brood to offset their meager means.
Hillbilly Depression-era retreads, but what gnaws at the viewer is how this family of six has no income to speak of yet nevertheless enjoys glowingly abundant health, clothes that appear interestingly consignment shop, yet also not old or frayed or tired. They drive a car, or a truck, or a delivery van. To be sure, they live in a house without water or electricity, but still, how does this ne'er-do-well manage these? He drives across the desert with his family and cuts off the road to whoop and holler, sleeps on the cold ground without bedding, and all manner of questionable aspects we know to ask about, since no one reading this is immune from the drama of paying always and forever through the nose, even when we are scrimping.
Those questions of his work are never addressed, and we don't see how he makes the dollars needed for the bottles he consumes. But it is a true story.
So a well wrought family integument of disarray, but all the pesky unanswered questions keep obtruding, every time the scene changes to yet another vehicle, and their destination yet another falling-down house.
Though the children age, and the film flips back and forth a little too choppily for comfort, the parents don't age. Woody's hair grays a tad, and Watts's hair gets messier and more straw-like. Harrelson's underlying rage seeps out, you notice, in everything he plays.
Another film like this appeared some months ago, starring Viggo Mortensen trying to raise a brood in the forest under hardscrabble martinet-like rules. I did not buy that film, Captain Fantastic (2016), though it won awards, mystifyingly. And I don't buy this, for all the wonderful ensemble acting laid out for us putting flesh to the actual life of a New York Magazine writer.
Without the daughter's respected position at a glossy mag, would this rocky road tale ever have made it to the silver screen?