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A broken family considers reconciliation as if it were testing the severity of a deep bruise in Rachel Lambert’s In the Radiant City. Having caused a rift by testifying against his brother years ago in a murder trial, a man must now decide whether to participate in his parole plea; but how far that will go toward repairing things is unclear, and an already complicated patchwork of resentments and betrayal is about to be muddied further by unpredictable circumstance. Lambert’s serious-minded debut is produced by Jeff Nichols, and though it doesn’t seethe in the way his own debut Shotgun Stories did, it shares that film’s preoccupation with the power of blood ties. It also borrows star Michael Abbott, Jr., one of Shotgun‘s conflicted brothers.
Abbott plays Andrew, a bearded loner who returns to his small Kentucky hometown with no fanfare, renting a cheap motel room as if he were a stranger. Across town, his sister Laura (Marin Ireland) dreads the prospect of his return. She’s been told that, since his testimony sent their brother Michael to jail, prospects for Michael’s release are much better if Andrew testifies on his behalf. But having spent years supporting their ailing mother (Celia Weston) and struggling to get by as a single parent, she clearly sees Andrew as the source of all their family’s misfortune.
Isn’t Michael the one to blame? Did Andrew do something wrong? Lambert says her film was inspired by true stories of those who’ve turned family members in for terrible crimes. But Radiant City often reads like the kind of film in which a decades-old crime winds up not being what it seems, or where the convicted party actually took the fall for someone else. The director offers teasing flashbacks to the characters’ youths, where Malick-like scenes of play brush against more nightmarish shots of a house aflame; and her dialogue talks around the murder instead of addressing it head-on. As viewers, we might be more invested in how these characters worked out their grievances if we better understood what inspired them. On the other hand, the effect time and long silence have on memories clearly sits at the heart of the drama.
Lambert complicates things when Laura’s 15 year-old rebellious daughter Beth (Madisen Beaty) crosses paths with Andrew at a gas station. Neither knows who the other is, and the setting is sexually loaded: Waiting outside in hopes that an older stranger will buy her beer, Beth looks like a runaway prostitute. Abbott’s ambiguous response in this and later scenes supplies at least as much tension as the main story: Though he treats her with respect and shows no sign of wanting to take advantage of her youth, his eyes suggest Andrew is constantly weighing things, perhaps wondering if the two share a physical attraction, and how he should respond if they do. The film waits patiently before letting us know if Andrew is about to have one more big reason to fear his sister’s wrath.
Production company: Candlewood Entertainment
Cast: Michael Abbott, Jr., Marin Ireland, Madisen Beaty, Celia Weston, Jon Michael Hill, Deirdre O’Connell, Paul Sparks
Director: Rachel Lambert
Screenwriters: Rachel Lambert, Nathan Gregorski
Producers: Jeff Nichols, Sonny Mallhi
Director of photography: Zoë White
Production designer: Michael Drury
Costume designer: Elizabeth Crum
Editor: Julia Bloch
Composer: West Dylan Thordson
Casting director: Melissa Kostenbauder
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: Peter Van Steemburg, ICM
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