Wednesday 10 September 2014

Running on Empty Dreams (2009)

Director: Nitara Lee Osbourne
Stars: Kathleen Benner, Rachel Owens, Jose Rosete, Sevan McBride and Wil Rillero
To switch things up a bit from the predominantly action and horror movies I've been covering thus far for my Arizona feature project, here's a lesbian drama from writer/director Nitara Lee Osbourne. Well, that's what most people seem to take it for, even though there's a lot more going on, and they either love it or hate it accordingly. Some hate the film because there's only one brief sex scene even though IMDb lists keywords for it like 'female nudity' and 'lesbian love', while some love it because there's only one brief sex scene but the two leading ladies, Kathleen Benner and Rachel Owens, are believably close anyway. The contrast between sex and love is only one of the themes that Osbourne riffs on throughout; there's much that's worthy of discussion here and she deserves a good deal of credit for attempting so much in one feature. Sadly, her drive to send a very particular message (this was based on true events) prompts much of the negative side as she refuses to let her characters collaborate with her.

While this is generally seen as a lesbian film, that isn't the first theme that's explored; initially, this aims to take a look at fresh starts. Sydney Harris moves to Phoenix in the summer of 2000 with her husband, Corey, a former marine now working as a private investigator, and their young son, Matt, who's too old to be starting kindergarten partway through the movie. Their new home isn't the only fresh start. They are clearly not connecting well as a couple and Sydney is fighting thyroid cancer, something that they can't afford and thus is putting even more strain on their relationship. The second theme looks at what makes a hero. Corey saved the life of a colleague under fire, someone who was overtly thankful even though he lost a leg in the process. Having been a hero once, he feels frustrated that he can't be one again, to save his own wife, because he simply doesn't earn enough. He does everything he can for her, but he does it out of a sense of duty rather than because she wants him to. He thinks it's what heroes do.

The third theme is the most awkward one because of where it leads; it's the difference between religion and spirituality, as personified in the leading ladies. Sydney takes Matt to the playground in the park and he gets squirted by another kid with a water gun. He's Tony Smith and Sydney immediately hits it off with his mum, Jane. Jane epitomises spirituality as she's a free spirit, much more bubbly than Sydney and with a powerful smile that's even more notable during the few scenes when it's absent. Sydney, however, has a Roman Catholic background, so everything in her life is wrapped up in guilt, something that particularly plagues her when she realises that she's fallen in love with Jane. Even now, the film isn't about lesbians, as Jane, her kids and her house, are merely ways that Sydney can escape what's behind her. Presumably she ties her cancer and her husband together in her mind, even though he's decent, loyal and caring, so she tries to run away from both. She runs away a lot, often literally to underline the point.
By this point we're starting to see the strong aspects and the weak ones. The actors are strong, all three of the major cast selling their characters and aiming to endow them with substantial depth. The themes are flowering and the picture has a lot of potential. There's also a really nice transition into flashback, as Corey slams his fist down on the table at home and we explode into a battle scene where he's being a hero. It's the technical side that also leans most into the negative though. The sound is the worst, with certain indoor scenes underpinned by background noise that sounds like someone's vacuuming in the next room or a jet engine is about to take off next door. Bizarrely, sound isn't a consistent problem, as it's mostly OK, just obviously poor in some scenes. The camerawork is generally capable, if never particularly ambitious, but the colours are too warm throughout. The music is consistently predictable too, especially in the more overtly religious scenes; it's also often overblown and intrusive.

It's as the film progresses that it starts to show its seams. The big themes are good ones but when any of the characters question, the script refuses to bend to give them the opportunity to grow. This often leads to odd scenes where they act out of character because that's where the themes require them to go. Some of this even leads to contradictions that shouldn't be there, because you can't force a square peg through a round hole. Little details are less problematic but more predictable. We can usually see where the script is going to go by keeping an eye on them because they're always telegraphing something. As characters say things, we can see the scene after next because that's obviously the only reason why they had those lines to begin with. These issues made me wonder about something else that could be seen as a positive or a negative; the way in which lines of dialogue obviously apply to more characters than those to whom they're delivered. I saw these as positive for about half the film but then started to switch to negative.

Another major flaw is the character of Geri Woods, not because Amber Ryan does a bad job because she does precisely what's required of her, but because a conscience should never have been this prominent. Corey's conscience is personified by John Duncan, the soldier whose life he saved, though one late scene hints that perhaps he didn't save him after all. If he's imaginary at this point, why should we assume he wasn't earlier? Similarly, if he's imaginary to Corey, perhaps Geri, Sydney's conscience, is imaginary too. She seems real though, an intrusive, obnoxious character who raises a lot of awkward questions. She's a lesbian who turned celibate for Jesus and adopts a mission to convince Sydney to do the same. Sydney's Roman Catholic and the priest to whom she gives her confession is worse than useless, so she's happy to both follow her heart and then feel notably guilty about it. Geri should have been a one scene character to make an important point, but she moves into the film like an unwelcome guest and refuses to leave.
I liked the setup of the first half hour and appreciated the promise that was offered by a thoughtful script. I was less impressed by the second, which creaked its way into the lesbian drama that Osbourne perhaps always wanted it to be. The third half hour was like the second but more so, because the characters were consistently screaming to develop while she held them back to tell the story she wanted. I was impressed most by the actors at this point, because they kept my interest even as they became progressively more forced. As Sydney, Kathleen Benner is an engaging lead, the pivot of the drama, but she's unable to find ways to sell many of the changes that she's going through as they don't all make sense. Jane should be a lot more than just Sydney's love interest and Rachel Owens seems up for it, but the script holds her back in that one role and can't stay consistent. Jose Rosete is especially hamstrung because he's given depth but no story arc, struggling at the end with the same things he was struggling with at the beginning.

And that's a real shame. While I appreciated the way in which none of the major characters come out of this as either the good guy or the bad guy, I didn't appreciate how they didn't come out as themselves, pun accidental but appropriate. I also didn't like how the film never seemed to end, or rather that it kept ending, with the last half hour full of places where the credits could have run, only for yet another scene to carry on regardless. This is a ninety minute story that takes two hours to unfold and shredding Geri's role down to match John Duncan's is only the beginning of what the editor should have excised from the picture. I was surprised to see that Webb Pickersgill edited, as this felt very much like what happens when a writer edits their own work. His cinematography is generally a lot better here than his editing, if he was left to his own devices. I have a feeling that he may not have been and, at the end of the day, he was stuck with the material that was shot and that focused on the script which refused to bend.

Osbourne's refusal to let her characters tell their stories as they saw fit shapes the whole picture and that sadly overwhelms many of the more ambitious things she attempted. Even as annoyed as I became with the inconsistencies, obstinance and out of character moments, I liked how she continued to weave those bigger themes through her script, most of them still worthy of praise at the end. The love vs sex angle is particularly well handled, one reason why the growing relationship between Sydney and Jane is so strong. Jane, with her two kids and many prior relationships, explains to Sydney that she's never made love, only had sex, something that helps their friendship grow into something more. The hero angle is deepened by a discovery late in the film that isn't surprising but is welcome anyway. Unfortunately it's weakened later still by scenes that shouldn't be there, especially a few of Corey's. The theme of religious guilt is the one that's resolved best (the conflict is abandoned) but it was bludgeoned into submission first.

It might be ironic that Sydney is a screenwriter with a BA from Yale and a subplot that has her submitting her work to studios to fulfil a dream or it might merely be projection on Osbourne's part. While the film is apparently based on a true story, I have no idea whether it's hers or not. It could be that she's telling her own story through abstraction into a character or she could just be adding little details to Sydney to build her character. Certainly she has a sense of humour, as at one point Sydney and Jane watch a short on TV called Romey and Jules. Sydney says she can write better than that and Jane agrees, but Osbourne was a script supervisor on that short earlier in her career. Given what she achieves with this script, I'm sure that she can write better than this too, but she needed fresh eyes on it and she needed another draught; this isn't what it should have ended up as. Most of all, she needed to collaborate with her characters, loosing them from the rigid framework she constructed and letting them go where they needed to.

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