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It is always satisfying when a fine actor gets a chance to be rediscovered. Shirley Knight received two Oscar nominations early in her career, and she worked for top directors like Sidney Lumet, Richard Lester, and Francis Ford Coppola. She also won two Emmys for her TV work, and 15 years ago, she had a memorable role as Helen Hunt’s mother in James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets. But it’s been a long time since Knight had a significant leading role. She relishes her return to the limelight in indie drama Redwood Highway, and audiences will be delighted by her warm, stirring performance. While this road movie may not have great originality or huge box-office potential, it’s a low-key charmer with a large-souled performance at its center.
At the start of the film, which was written by Gary Lundgren and James Twyman and directed by Lundgren, Marie (Knight) is living in a seemingly comfortable retirement home in Oregon. But she’s not a happy camper. Her son, Michael (James Le Gros), placed her there against her will, and although she’s sociable, she’s clearly sharper and more vigorous than many of the other residents. When Michael comes for a visit, he wants to make plans to take her to his daughter’s wedding. Marie claims to disapprove of her granddaughter’s fiancé — a drummer in a band — but she’s also disgruntled by the family’s treatment of her and she declines the wedding invitation. Marie then begins to have second thoughts, but she’s a proud woman, and decides to make the 80-mile journey to the coast on her own.
That’s really all there is to the story. Michael and the family send out the police to try to find the wanderer, but she manages to elude them on back roads. Along the way, Marie encounters a variety of people who supply some diversion. The most engaging episode recounts her flirtation with a widower, played expertly by Tom Skerritt. She also receives aid from a bartender (Michelle Lombardo), and gets to enjoy some female solidarity with the other patrons. When she stops at the desolate motel where she spent her honeymoon, she runs into a threat from some menacing druggies, but this melodramatic episode is out of keeping with the rest of the film. In addition, a few dreamy flashbacks to Marie’s early life are a little too truncated and cryptic to add much heft to the present-day story.
Fortunately, Knight is always front and center, and she manages to be alternately feisty, astringent, stubborn and wonderfully open to experience. Although the actress may have lost the youthful radiance that enhanced her performances in Sweet Bird of Youth, The Group and The Rain People, she still exudes charisma. Le Gros is another underused, undervalued actor who delivers a subtle, multifaceted portrayal. In fact, almost all of the performances achieve perfect pitch. This is a tribute to Lundgren’s direction, and he also makes excellent use of the serene Oregon locations. One scene in which a deer wanders into Marie’s makeshift camp is particularly delicate and haunting. The musical score by John Morgan Askew works smoothly without ever overpowering the story.
Opens: Friday, April 18 (Monterey Media)
Cast: Shirley Knight, James Le Gros, Tom Skerritt, Zena Grey, Michelle Lombardo, Sam Daly
Director-editor: Gary Lundgren
Screenwriters: Gary Lundgren, James Twyman
Producers: Gary Kout, James Twyman
Executive producers: Guy Mommaerts, Chiyo Mommaerts, Karen Kozleski
Director of photography: Patrick Neary
Production designer: Dave Marshall
Music: John Morgan Askew
Costume designer: Claudia Everett
Rated PG-13, 90 minutes
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