(1999) Drama (Firstlook) Sigourney Weaver, David Strathairn, Julianne Moore, Chloe Sevigny, Arliss Howard, Louise Fletcher, Aunjanue Ellis, Sara Rue, Nicole Ari Parker, Ron Lea, Dara Perlmutter, Marc Donato. Directed by Scott Elliott.
We all live our lives in a kind of haze of normalcy. We take comfort in the little rituals of the everyday, ignoring the fear that it can all be taken away in a moment. Sometimes, day-to-day living is just so chaotic that we don’t even notice that we’re falling from grace until we hit bottom.
That’s essentially what happens to Alice Goodwin (Weaver). She’s a school nurse and her husband Walter (Strathairn) runs a farm in rural Wisconsin. They’re originally from the city and although the locals are friendly enough, most regard them with a certain amount of distrust. The exception are their best friends, Theresa (Moore) and Dan (Lea) Collins, whose children regularly play with the Goodwin children.
Where Alice’s home is a symphony of chaos and mess, Theresa’s home is orderly and well-kept. While Alice struggles to keep on top of things, Theresa always seems to find time to bake muffins and do crafts with her kids. Alice is envious, even to how well-behaved the Collins children are. Emma, the eldest (Perlmutter) Goodwin child, is an absolute harpy, shrill, selfish and mean. Alice gets little or no help from Walter in keeping the house kept and the kids minded, which frustrates her.
On the last day of school, Alice has a run-in with Carole McKessie (Sevigny), the irresponsible single mother of a high-strung boy (Donato) whom she repeatedly sends to school sick. Alice is weary of dealing with sick kids and irresponsible parents and makes wiseass comments to a fellow teacher.
When Theresa asks Alice to baby-sit while Dan and Theresa take a little romantic time for themselves, Alice is only too eager to oblige. After all, she has a pond on her property, farm animals and all sorts of things to keep bored kids busy. Things are going as normal – chaos on the brink of hysteria – when things take a nastier turn, as things often will. The resulting tragedy leaves Alice in a state of shock.
Her shock is about to multiply. A few weeks after the incident, Alice is arrested for sexually abusing the McKessie boy. The Goodwins, already on the edge of financial oblivion, cannot afford her bail so Alice is obliged to remain in jail while awaiting trial on the charges, which are beginning to pile up as other children come forward.
Alice, her world already reeling from shock, finds herself in a prison where she is harassed by Dyshette (Ellis), an inmate with plenty of attitude, a chip on her shoulder and anger management issues. Alice is slowly beginning to break down, sabotaging the efforts of her frustrated lawyer (Howard) to get her off the hook.
Meanwhile, Howard is struggling trying to keep home and hearth together. He is aided by Theresa, but an attraction is developing between them that neither one of them want. The map of the world which they’ve all drawn for themselves has grown vague; whether it can take them home or not is by no means certain.
Alice is a complex and not always lovable role for Weaver, who has made a career of playing strong role models. Her Alice certainly has some strength, but that is balanced by a lot of vulnerabilities. The resulting juxtaposition between the two characteristics makes Alice a compelling character, although not always likable. Her means of dealing with the grief of her situation borders on the self-centered, but certainly that’s understandable; her very core has been threatened and she has gone totally into self-preservation mode.
Strathairn is amazing as always in his role as Walter. He plays a man who is anything but strong, constantly leaning on his wife for everything. When he has to step up to the plate, he doesn’t always manage but he’s in there plugging away. When Theresa compliments him as being “a very good man,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. Anybody thinking of getting married on a lark should see what this man goes through before saying “I do.” Talk about “in good times and in bad.”
This is definitely a film meant for women. The standard of women as nurturers and caregivers for their family is seen here as the state of grace. When a woman falls from grace, she is no longer able to care and nurture her family, hence the fall. That Alice in some ways relishes the fall is what makes the movie real and compelling.
This is one of those little films that kind of slipped under the radar when it was released. I saw it recommended on Netflix, and was curious, and was glad that I chose to satiate my curiosity. It’s well worth checking out, even if, through no fault of your own, you’re a guy.
WHY RENT THIS: An unflinching look at how things can spin out of control. Straithairn and Weaver are both terrific in their roles, and the cast is generally outstanding.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weaver’s character is often unlikable, so much so that it takes some effort to relate to her.
FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex and a smattering of bad language, particularly in the prison scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her role.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,965 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
TOMORROW: Battle: Los Angeles