Director Philip Harder, whose previous credits mostly consist of music videos for such performers as Liz Phair, Hilary Duff, Foo Fighters and Prince, has chosen ambitious subject matter for his feature narrative debut. Tuscaloosa, a coming-of-age drama set in 1970s-era Alabama, deals with such issues as mental illness and violent racial clashes. While this cinematic adaptation of W. Glasgow Phillip’s acclaimed 1994 novel isn’t wholly effective in handling its complex storyline, the film offers compelling performances by its two leads and enough provocative elements to make it worthy of attention.
The story revolves around Billy (Devon Bostick, Okja), recently graduated from college and spending his summer working as a groundskeeper at the mental asylum where his psychiatrist father (Tate Donovan) works. There, Billy becomes besotted by Virginia (Natalia Dyer, Stranger Things), a young inmate who seems far more free-spirited than mentally ill. “She may be crazy, or she may be the sanest person I ever met,” Billy confides to a friend, and his instincts may be right: Virginia tells him that she was committed by her father because she’s a “nymphomaniac.”
Soon, the couple is enjoying nights away from the asylum, with Billy sneaking Virginia out of her upper-floor room by devising a homemade rope ladder (he laughingly compares her to Rapunzel). As their relationship develops, the formerly cynical Billy becomes inspired by her open-hearted adventurousness and resolves to run away with her. His decision becomes easier when his father, who has become aware of their liaisons and doesn’t exactly approve, informs him that he’s contemplating performing a lobotomy on Virginia.
Not all of Tuscaloosa involves the romance. The pic also introduces Billy’s best friend Nigel (Marchant Davis), an African American who has become increasingly militant and eventually resorts to such violent acts as firebombing a local police station. It doesn’t help their relationship that Billy’s father, an entrenched figure in Southern society, is very close to the local authority figures with whom he periodically plays poker.
It’s a lot of material for a single film. And that’s not even all, with a major plot element involving flashbacks to years earlier when Billy’s mother ran away with a black woman when he was just a child. The two lovers wound up burning to death in a highway crash, and Billy suspects that his father may in some way have been responsible for it.
Harder, who also scripted, doesn’t prove fully successful in juggling the myriad plot elements. What probably worked very well on the page too often seems oversimplified and hyper-melodramatic on film. There are also times when the screenplay proves too obvious by far, such as when a character makes a comment about George Wallace not losing any voters even if he shot somebody that too self-consciously echoes Donald Trump’s similar infamous remark.
Tuscaloosa proves most successful when dealing with the star-crossed lovers at the story’s center, with Dyer particularly magnetic as the bohemian Virginia who shakes Billy out of his existential stupor. Bostick does fine work as well, while Tate Donovan nearly steals the movie with his sly, understated performance as the morally shady doctor.
The filmmaker effectively establishes the period in which the story is set with copious archival footage of Wallace’s speeches and the Vietnam War, among other things. And the Southern setting is evoked so authentically that viewers will probably be startled to learn that the pic was entirely shot in Minnesota.
Production companies: Riley Harder Pictures, Garlin Pictures, T-Group
Cast: Devon Bostick, Natalia Dyer, Marchant Davis, Tate Donovan, YG, Ella Rae Peck, Birgundi Baker, Bruce Bohne, Tony Papenfuss
Director-screenwriter: Philip Harder
Producer: Patrick Riley
Executive producers: Tate Donovan, Brian Etting, Josh Etting, Scott Franklin, Jenny Daly, Glasgow Phillips, Erik Helgeson, Daniel Riley
Director of photography: Theo Stanley
Production designer: Mark Wojahn
Editor: Clayton Condit
Composers: Joshua R. Mosley, Matt Hutchinson
Costume designer: Deborah Fiscus
Casting: Bess Fifer