One positive development in recent films is that some actresses who haven’t always had the opportunities they deserve have been getting a chance to play leading roles. This may be partly a result of filmmakers recognizing the underrepresentation of women of a certain age, and it probably also reflects the graying of the population and the realization that moviegoers want to identify with characters in their own age group. Mary Kay Place had her best role in years in Kent Jones’ highly acclaimed film Diane, and now Karen Allen sinks her teeth into the leading part in a small but affecting character piece, Colewell, enjoying its world premiere in San Francisco.
Allen (who toplined the 2016 indie Year by the Sea) has worked steadily over the years, but she is probably best remembered for her movies of the 1970s and ’80s — Animal House, The Wanderers, Shoot the Moon, Starman and of course Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now she gives one of her best performances in this modest drama about an older woman losing her livelihood and her sense of community. Her character, Nora, runs the post office in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and she not only enjoys the work but the opportunity to interact with the mainly older residents of the town who find the post office one of their main gathering places. When officials decide to close the local branch, Nora’s life is disrupted, and an entire way of life is also threatened.
The film has something to say about hard economic times in the heartland, a phenomenon that contributed to Trump’s victory in places like rural Pennsylvania. Although the movie acknowledges the economic threats to many Americans, it succeeds best not as a social drama but as a rich character piece, emblazoned by Allen, who relishes her rare leading role. She is always believable as a woman who seems reticent but is willing to fight for her livelihood when faceless bureaucrats try to submerge her needs to their bottom line.
We aren’t given much background about Nora’s personal life. She makes a reference to a husband in one scene, but we have no idea what happened to him. There is also a strange element added to the pic that is not entirely successful. At one point a young woman (Hannah Gross) arrives for a brief stay at her house. At first we think this may be Nora’s daughter, but then there’s a suggestion that she is Nora’s younger self. Nora mentions that she once enjoyed life on the open road, and the young Ella seems to be living that footloose life, though she also stops for periodic stays in Nora’s home.
There were a few slightly surreal elements in Diane, and these play an even larger role in Colewell. Viewers may have different reactions to these odd intrusions, but to my mind, they seem provocative but ultimately pointless. The pic is most effective when it sticks with Nora rather than her puzzling alter ego.
Other performances in the film are strong. Kevin J. O’Connor scores as a younger postal worker who has a friendship with Nora, and many local actors add texture to the portrait of rural America. Daniel Jenkins and Craig Walker as the two bureaucrats who undermine Nora ever so politely are also chillingly effective. Cinematographer Paul Yee does a superb job capturing the spare rural landscapes. Unlike many movies shot in places far from where they are meant to take place, this one has an authenticity that makes a noticeable difference. Although Colewell could have benefited from pruning away some of its eccentricities, it pays eloquent tribute to a woman who fights against a life erased.
Cast: Karen Allen, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hannah Gross, Daniel Jenkins, Craig Walker, Malachy Cleary, Catherine Kellner
Director-screenwriter: Tom Quinn
Producers: Alexander Byer, Craig Shilowich, Joshua Blum, Matthew Thurm
Executive producers: Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Konawal, Micah Spear, Adam Kirszner
Director of photography: Paul Yee
Production designer: Alan Lampert
Costume designer: Annie Simon
Editors: Darrin Navarro, Tom Quinn
Music: Dara Taylor
Casting: Lois Drabkin
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival