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Told with a spareness that suits its desert setting, Katie Says Goodbye is a plaintive story of hard luck and fringe dwellers, one that might have felt clichéd in lesser hands. But first-time filmmaker Wayne Roberts conjures new, resonant chords in his taut, tender drama about a young truck-stop waitress who dreams of life beyond her edge-of-the-map town. With its superb cast’s finely etched characters, led by Olivia Cooke’s memorable work in the title role and featuring a heart-stoppingly lovely supporting turn by Mary Steenburgen, the quietly assured debut would be a worthy addition to any art-house schedule.
Cooke’s Katie, a sort of Mary Magdalene of the trailer park, waitresses at a diner in the remote corner of Arizona where she lives with her mother, Tracey (Mireille Enos). (The film was shot in New Mexico, with unaffected eloquence, by Paula Huidobro.) Sometimes it’s just a look, sometimes a heart-to-heart, but the restaurant’s owner, Maybelle (Steenburgen), gives Katie the maternal attention that’s so desperately lacking on the home front, where the teen is the sole source of income and stability. The sad-eyed Enos deftly manages to be both pathetic and predatory as the unemployed Tracey, who spends her time in a vacant haze on the couch, watching TV and counting the hours between hookups with the neighbor’s husband.
To make ends meet — and also to fund her plan to move to San Francisco — Katie turns tricks, an open secret in the tiny desert outpost. Her regular customers include cops and the hypocritical churchgoing father (Nate Corddry) of a diner co-worker (Natasha Bassett). Only one, though, a trucker named Bear, played with grizzled warmth by Jim Belushi, has become a friend to the fatherless girl; his protective concern for her is as genuine as Maybelle’s.
For all her practicality, Katie proves alarmingly romantic when she falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), a new mechanic at the auto repair shop, and decides that she wants to share her life with him. He’s a barely communicative ex-con with a guarded, wounded gaze; Abbott, who plumbed feverish depths in James White, embodies Bruno’s passivity as well as something coiled and potentially explosive in him. As their relationship develops, it grows clear that it’s as one-sided as most of Katie’s relationships, whether she’s serving food, taking care of her mother or servicing johns.
In her certainty about Bruno there’s a new vulnerability, though, that falls somewhere between childlike yearning and a readiness for adult independence. From the way Katie rehearses her first conversation with him, walking alone along an empty road, to the way she tries to draw him out during a postcoital chat in her girlish bedroom, Cooke makes that yearning as fully dimensional as the character’s self-reliant strength. In a place of stunted hopes and benighted lives, hers is the kind of strength that can arouse violent resentment, as a couple of inseparable buddies (Chris Lowell and Keir Gilchrist) seem determined to prove.
A compelling member of the Bates Motel ensemble and an engaging lead in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (notwithstanding that feature’s problematic premise), Cooke delivers a revelatory performance in this Southwestern tale. Katie is poised between high school and the rest of her life but surrounded by dead-end realities. However many freight trains and cargo trucks crisscross past her, movement feels like a far-off luxury. When she speaks of her plan to attend beauty school, she’s quick to soften the autonomous stance by adding, “It’s nothing fancy like being a lawyer.”
But though Katie might be hyper-alert to other people’s feelings and needs, and though many of those people take advantage of her and worse, she refuses to be a victim — something she has in common with Isabelle Huppert’s character in Elle, though the two women otherwise couldn’t be more different. The heart of Katie’s story is the way, from moment to moment, she chooses to respond to circumstances that are trying and sometimes brutal. To call her selfless wouldn’t be accurate, but she sees beyond herself in a way that’s nothing if not enlightened. A light shines in her, however tired her smile.
As both writer and director, Roberts is sensitive to the emotional spaces between characters, and also to offhand sparks of connection. The simplest words convey whole stories, barely acknowledged. Bruno and Katie have the same telling answer — “I don’t think so” — when asked whether they have siblings.
It’s worth noting that the film’s executive producers include directors of three significant recent indies — Antonio Campos (Christine), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Josh Mond (James White). Roberts joins their ranks with his character-driven big-screen bow. Drawing upon archetypes of American independent cinema, he and his collaborators on both sides of the camera have spun narrative gold from the flat, arid setting. In keeping with the understated tone, the design elements by Tania Bijlani and Amit Gajwani never scream “period design.” Collectively they suggest the ’70s — gas is going for $1.13 a gallon. The details are lived-in and plain. The story has a timeless sheen.
Production: Parallel Cinéma, Relic Pictures, Unknown Subject
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Mireille Enos, Christopher Abbott, Mary Steenburgen, Jim Belushi, Chris Lowell, Keir Gilchrist, Nate Corddry, Natasha Bassett
Director-screenwriter: Wayne Roberts
Producers: Eric Schultz, Carlo Sirtori, Jacob Wasserman, Max Born, Kimberly Parker, Benjamin Steiner, David Steiner
Executive producers: Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Josh Mond, Michael Balchan, Lionel Houbas, Jeff Waxman
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: Tania Bijlani
Costume designer: Amit Gajwani
Editors: Sabine Emiliani, Carlo Sirtori
Composer: Dan Romer
Casting: Cindy Tolan, Adam Caldwell
Not rated, 87 minutes
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