The Yellow Handkerchief

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Three unlikely companions, all misfits in their own minds, take a road trip through the backwaters of post-Katrina Louisiana to New Orleans in "The Yellow Handkerchief," a sometimes insightful and other times sentimental slice of Americana.

Four terrific performances make the transition to a U.S. setting go smoothly for British director Udayan Prasad. William Hurt, back in a lead role after a succession of smart supporting turns, makes the most of his opportunity. He anchors the drama with an acutely observed, nicely nuanced performance as a man just out of stir and uncertain of his bearings. Maria Bello, seen almost entirely in flashbacks, and young actors Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne (a British actor with a spot-on Yank accent) create memorably idiosyncratic characters that round out this four-hander.

The film is too slow-moving to engage many outside of art houses. The film also seems overly eager to emphasize its regional identity, slipping in a 'gator, water snake and a boat ride through the bayou. Otherwise, cinematographer Chris Menges and composers Eef Barzelay and Jack Livesay superbly catch the mood and characters of that countryside torn up by Katrina.

Released from prison after six years, Brett (Hurt), a quiet -- some would say withdrawn and uncommunicative -- man drifts into a small town looking for a bus heading south. In a small restaurant, he watches the interaction among a group of teens. He senses that one of them, Martine (Stewart), has been spurned by a boy and that another, Gordy (Redmayne), is both self-conscious and defiant over his geeky awkwardness.

When he sees them again at a river ferry, Martine has gone with Gordy as her "ride" to make the other boy jealous -- unsuccessfully it would appear -- and now she is stuck with the geek. She eagerly invites Brett to join them, just to have another person in the car.

Circumstances, including a pouring rain, cause the three to spend several days on the road together. This gives everyone time to spill their guts about what ails them. This can be summed up in Gordy's line: "I never felt part of anything either." No one here does.

A confrontation outside a general store with a white-trash couple and Brett's subsequent arrest -- both somewhat contrived situations -- alert the two teens that their passenger is an ex-con. So when he is released by the cops, he relates his sad tale as a reclusive, blue-collar guy who fell for a boat seller, May (Bello), yet blew his one chance at happiness.

Meanwhile, Martine is mostly ignored by her dad and feels generally unloved. Gordy is all too aware of his nerdiness yet aggressively pushes his most unattractive characteristics at people.

Brett proves to possess an innate wisdom that belies his own troubles in life. Martine is at times herself wiser beyond her years, and even Gordy shows flashes of normalcy beneath his deliberate facade of abnormality.

Of the four, Bello's May never comes fully into focus in all the flashbacks, but she too is someone who has made her share of mistakes and is never sure whether to blame herself or the person who wants to get close to her.

The script by Erin Dignam from a short story by Pete Hamill is a little too slick in how it works everyone's troubles out, leading to a tearful happy ending presaged by the film's own title. (Think Tony Orlando and yellow ribbons.) Dignam overly crafts her scenes with characters coming up with just the right words at the most telling moments. Consequently, the well-made polish of her writing sometimes works against the backwater naturalism established by Prasad.

But his actors save the day. There's a painful honesty in all the performances that gets across the hurt everyone endures in life and the helplessness one feels when the remedy is never clear, even when it's close at hand.

THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF
Arthur Cohn Prods.
Credits:
Director: Udayan Prasad
Screenwriter: Erin Dignam
Story: Pete Hamill
Producer: Arthur Cohn
Executive producer: Lillian Birnbaum
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designer: Monroe Kelly
Music: Eef Barzelay, Jack Livesay
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin
Editor: Christopher Tellesfen
Cast:
Brett: William Hurt
May: Maria Bello
Gordy: Eddie Redmayne
Martine: Kristen Stewart
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating
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