‘A Country Called Home’: LAFF Review

A Country Called Home Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Ryan Green

A Country Called Home Still - H 2015

The potentially affecting story unfolds too smoothly.

A Texas-set family drama stars Imogen Poots.

With its uncluttered widescreen images and plangent guitar score, the gentle drama A Country Called Home is in sync with its small-town Texas setting. Unfortunately, much of it is also as flat as the terrain, despite the efforts of an engaging cast led by Imogen Poots.

The debut feature of Anna Axster (which has nothing to do with the like-titled novel by Kim Barnes) centers on a young woman’s coming of age after the death of her estranged father. The straightforward, heart-on-its-sleeve simplicity of the polished pic, a competition title at L.A. Film Fest, is refreshing at first, and there are touches of loveliness and poignancy. But the director’s approach tamps down the story’s dramatic potential, while the screenplay she wrote with Jim Beggarly repeatedly defuses the emotional power of messy family affairs.

British actress Poots, a figure of smashing tastemaker verve in Jimi: All Is by My Side, occupies the opposite end of the self-confidence spectrum as Ellie, a wannabe furniture designer who hasn’t yet found her career footing in Los Angeles. Unlike her older, more settled brother (Shea Whigham), Ellie feels compelled to return to their native Texas after getting news of their father’s stroke. While buying her ticket, she gets a second call, informing her that he’s died. Her aloneness in the purgatory of the airport is well captured in the stillness and restraint of DP Charlie Wuppermann’s framing.

At the other end of her flight, she has to deal with her father’s girlfriend, Amanda (an excellent Mary McCormack), whose boozy brassiness barely masks how ill-equipped she is to deal with practical matters. In the words of Amanda’s taciturn son, Jack (Crazy Heart’s Ryan Bingham), she’s “a handful.” Ellie steps in to oversee the funeral arrangements, with help from a new friend, a singer-songwriter named Reno (Mackenzie Davis, of Halt and Catch Fire, who costarred with Poots in That Awkward Moment).

The transgender status of the sweet-faced Reno, who favors cowboy suits, may be the only element of the story that isn’t subject to explication by dialogue; it’s commented on only indirectly, in a couple of incidents of borderline-cartoonish bigotry. Davis ably conveys the awkward grace of someone adjusting to a new outward identity. And in Reno’s role as caretaker to his troubled mother, the film emphasizes its theme of new beginnings and the excuses that put a life on hold. Reno’s need to break away from futile obligations amplifies Ellie’s far less dire need to dump her ridiculously self-centered boyfriend (Josh Helman). Their phone breakup is one of the better-written scenes, in part because it expresses plenty while leaving things unsaid. 

Axster and Beggarly’s tendency to put everything on the surface sometimes proves effective, as when Ellie shares the memory of a life-shattering incident with Jack, or when they talk about the true meaning of fatherhood. All of this leads transparently toward a conditional forgiveness as Ellie considers the father she escaped, a destructive alcoholic who was a gifted guitar craftsman. The grandparents she had assumed were dead show up to help mend the family rifts; they’re played with twinkly sweetness by June Squibb and Norman Bennett.

Much as the station wagon from Ellie’s childhood awaits her in the garage, long unused but still running, the movie stirs up the friction of the past just enough to instantly smooth it over. Axster’s attempts to shake up the mood with “hilarity” (a revenge prank by Reno) or dark farce (a funeral interloper) are fumbled. But a stranger’s belligerence at a Dairy Queen is a sharp moment, accentuating Ellie’s separateness from her surroundings when she first arrives.

Lending subtlety to dialogue that’s often on-the-nose, Poots makes her character’s confused grief felt, along with her growing self-awareness and assertiveness. The spare acoustic score by Bingham, Nate Barnes and Daniel Sproul is a fine complement.

Production companies: Raindance Entertainment, Knuckles One, Kickstart Prods.
Cast: Imogen Poots, Mary McCormack, Mackenzie Davis, Ryan Bingham, June Squibb, Shea Whigham, Josh Helman, Norman Bennett
Director: Anna Axster
Screenwriter: Anna Axster, Jim Beggarly
Producers: Jason Netter, Nicolas Gonda, Anna Axster, Ryan Bingham 
Executive producers: Tucker Moore, Jim Jard, Larry Seligmann, Julianne Johnson, Alec Jhangiani
Director of photography: Charlie Wuppermann
Production designer:  Jake Kuykendall
Costume designer:  Nicole Schneider
Editor: Kiran Pallegadda
Composers: Ryan Bingham, Nate Barnes, Daniel Sproul
Casting director: Vicky Boone

No rating, 93 minutes