riding in cars with boys

I almost didn’t see Georgia Rule — only the brutal heat of Iraqi summer and the boredom of waiting for flights at Balad Air Base chased me into the theater. I was anticipating the worst, a seriously bad time, treacle on the order of Thomas Kinkade; the trailer makes it look like the worst possible edition of the annual or semi-annual going-back-to-grandma’s-makes-everything-better tradition in Hollywood. (What self-loathing there must be among screenwriters and producers, that they compulsively, repeatedly send recalcitrant teens — their younger selves? their own obnoxious offspring? — to the country to shed their urban, media-saturated ways and re-learn the good old-fashioned virtues of hard work, courtesy, and love for family!) From the trailer, one can see all the key elements aligned exactly as they must be in one of these self-flagellating pageants — the brittle, wisecracking teen, the mom with problems of her own, the stern but patient grandma, the handsome love interests for both mom and daughter, the uptight townspeople who reject the girl, lessons learned, catchphrases used like hammers against the temples of both naughty adolescents and weary audience members.

Fortunately, the trailer actually shows every single use of the wise-granny catchphrase “Georgia Rule,” and this film is much better and more interesting than the piece of apple pie being advertised.

For the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I’ll admit, it looks like we’re getting exactly what the trailer promised. We start with Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) walking stubbornly along the road, stubbornly refusing to get in the car with her mother Lily (Felicity Huffman). They both eventually arrive, by separate means, in the tiny Idaho town where Lily grew up and where Rachel is to spend the summer with her grandmother, for her own good. We in the audience should know, immediately, that something odd is going on with this script when Lily not only leaves her daughter by the side of the road but, after a brief, tightly-wound exchange with her mother (Jane Fonda), leaves town again without waiting to see if Rachel turns up. But Lohan is so good at playing the irritating girl, and there is so much damned wholesomeness on display — there’s actually a Fourth-of-July picnic, with stars and stripes and barbeque — that for some time we are gulled into believing that the film is exactly what it appears, a fairly witless fish-out-of-water family comedy. Look! — there is the young country hunk she now despises but will eventually fall for! And there — wacky townspeople with one-dimensional comic traits! Here is Grandma, insisting that no one take the Lord’s name in vain, and that everyone works in her house!

Even when the possibility is raised that Rachel has been sexually abused by her stepfather, it initially appears to be only a kind of screenwriting shortcut, a stab at giving the character depth and also excusing her annoying behavior. It’s not until a disturbing scene in a fishing boat with the country hunk — a scene that will not relax into either playful romantic comedy or trauma-victim melodrama, but insists on trying for both — that we are shocked out of our expectations. And from that scene forward, the film keeps turning and turning, narrowly dodging pylons of crap, never quite letting us settle into any of half a dozen familiar forms that it flirts with and then rejects.

Part of the way it achieves this is to let its characters change less than the formula typically demands. The country hunk, oops, turns out to be a faithful Mormon about to go on his mission — and still is at the end of the film. Lily — is she an alcoholic? Yes. And no, at least not in the easy, Lifetime afternoon drama way — she drinks to excess when she’s under stress, but there’s no suggestion that she lives her life in a bottle. There’s also no particular suggestion, by the end of the film, that she’s likely to quit.

And then, too — is Georgia even a good grandmother, or just stronger than everyone else around her? The relationship between Georgia and Rachel is particularly interesting — the way Rachel is continually challenging Georgia’s power and submitting to it at the same time. I’ve watched real teenagers do this. They’re always bracing for a face-off that they never quite get around to having. Rachel insists that Georgia can’t tell her what to do. Immediately afterward, as Rachel gets up from the table, Georgia reminds her to wash her dishes. “Are you asking or telling?” challenges Rachel, but Georgia simply says, “You’re done eating, wash your dishes” — as though it were a matter of logical sequence. Will Rachel do it? Yes, she crumples like a cheap suit, but adds, with both contempt and embarrassment, “I’ve never really washed a dish before.” Rachel rebels, but always in half-measures.

The film, too, marks its characters’ accomplishments in half-steps. Things end well, but not neatly. Does Rachel prove herself to the townspeople? She probably makes as many enemies as friends. Does the handsome widower — or anybody, for that matter — end up with someone to love? It’s impossible to say at the end of the film. Will Rachel straighten up and fly right? A lot of what happens in the film suggests that she’s already much more under control than anybody thought. Even the overarching mysteries of Rachel’s sexual abuse — did it happen, or did she make it up? if it’s real, will the bad guy get his comeuppance? if not, will the family be reunited? — don’t unfold in anything like the ways we’d expect. Which is not to say the ultimate outcome is exactly a surprise — only that the path we take to get there is circuitous and full of little moments that buck the formula. Revelations that might be accompanied by sad music and weeping in other films of this ilk are here often presented as bitter, Electionish comedy, or as snappy sarcasm. And the climax of the film, in which Rachel and her stepfather (a great, less-is-more Cary Elwes) finally hash it out and the mysteries are resolved, is bizarre and complicated and anticlimactic.

I was also interested in the way Lohan and the filmmakers used her recent reputation as a bad girl as a way to bring the audience to the character. Twice in the film references are made to Lohan’s character taking off her underwear in public (once it’s played for laughs, but the second time it’s creepy and weird), and in general the short dresses, dark glasses, drug abuse, and acid personality make her seem like a spoiled starlet dropped into normal society. That we then come to find her admirable — vicious tongue, inappropriate sexuality and all — is a clever trick.

This is by no means a perfect film, even within its own sphere — I found a lot of the humor grating, especially at the beginning. (You may have seen, in the trailer, Georgia excusing Rachel’s odd behavior to the neighbors by saying, “She was raised in California.”) A lot of minor characters seem to exist primarily to be wacky — Hector Elizondo’s proud Basque farmer seemed particularly extraneous to me. Marshall’s idea of a sex scene seems to involve a lot of rolling and thrashing around, although I suppose you could argue that the scene between Lily and Arnold is deliberately inauthentic. And when the script tries to delve into Lily and Georgia’s past and the death of Lily’s father, it winds up wallowing in exactly the kind of simplistic bathos that one dreads in this kind of movie.

I also admit that when reviewing films like this, which seem to break free from the mold of convention, I’m always a little worried that the filmmakers have simply managed to serve me the same old thing in smarter packaging. But I saw this film in a theatre half-filled with soldiers, and although they were making fun of it at the beginning — at various points in the first half, I heard calls for Rachel, Lily, and Georgia to be slapped — by the end it they seemed to give it and its characters some grudging respect. And I think what I like about this movie is that grudging respect is really all it wants. Unlike too many of these films, it doesn’t want you to like it, or its characters, or to feel that everything’s come out neatly wrapped up. It’s not that interested in satisfying all your shallow narrative urges, in making you feel victorious or vindicated. It knows the story it came to tell and it thoroughly knows its characters, and that’s enough.

For some reason, I keep thinking about last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, which to me exemplifies everything that’s wrong with “independent” film right now. There is a movie with nothing on its mind and nothing to give us but treacle and preachy lessons about loving your family, a film which never really asks us to face anything serious, anything of significance — it asks no hard choices of us or of its characters, its laughs are easy and smooth, its conclusions self-evident, its soundtrack hip and unchallenging. It asks us to like a sweet little girl and a superficially cranky but ultimately kind old man. Meanwhile, Hollywood is sneaking right up on territory that used to be the exclusive domain of independent film — tricky, taboo subject matter, not played for melodrama, but simply explored and allowed to have a life of its own. If this is the future, I say, give me more Hollywood! More Lindsay Lohan! More Garry Marshall, for God’s sake! Has the world turned upside down??

[On the other hand, the Chicago Reader called this “another flabby big-screen sitcom,” and Slant magazine complained that the sexual abuse was “shamelessly” exploited as a plot device. Just for comparison.]

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