'Galveston': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Low Spark Films
An atmospheric on-the-lam picture.

Ben Foster and Elle Fanning play strangers on the run in Melanie Laurent's English-language directing debut.

Actor/director Melanie Laurent makes her English-language directing debut with Galveston, a seedy but sincere and strikingly attractive picture adapted from the novel by Nic Pizzolatto. Starring Ben Foster and Elle Fanning as strangers running together from their crimes and the powerful man (Beau Bridges) who profited from them, the 1980s-set story uses terminal illness as a catalyst, if not the ultimate cause, for redemption. Though less bracing than the pedigree of True Detective creator Pizzolatto might suggest, the strength of its direction and performances should attract applause on the fest circuit.

Foster is Roy, a New Orleans ex-con who works as an enforcer for Stan (Bridges), but whose situation has gotten delicate since Stan started sleeping with a woman he once knew. Stan sends Roy on an assignment meant to go wrong, and when the gunpowder settles, the only ones standing are Roy and Fanning's Raquel, a call girl who was an unwitting pawn in the setup. Assuming she was not meant to survive, Roy brings her with him as he flees town, grabbing his gun and some valuable-looking documents on his way out.

Taciturn Roy is not looking to make friends (he's been told he is dying, though he keeps that to himself), and the 40 year-old has no prurient interest in his 19-year-old passenger. Thinking she needs to secure her position, she offers herself a couple of times, testing his patience. Fanning persuasively plays someone who has learned to ingratiate herself with men, but her reflexes don't work here. "Cut the baby-talk shit," he says at one point. "Be straight with me and I'll be straight with you."

Raquel breaks that deal pretty quickly, but Roy won't know for a while. As they drive west from Louisiana, she gets him to make a pit stop in dinky Spring, Texas, for an errand. Someone owes her money, she says, but what she emerges from the pit stop with is a trash bag full of clothes and a 3-year-old girl. While Roy's waiting in the car, he hears a gunshot.

A road movie where most of the story centers on one place, Galveston settles into a cheap motel in that coastal town. (Though it appears to have been shot entirely in Georgia, the film finds atmospheric stand-in locations for swampy Louisiana and sunny Texas spots.) Raquel says the girl has never seen the ocean, so that's where they hole up — in separate rooms, though that hardly quashes the suspicions of the hotel's manager Nance (C.K. McFarland). She knows something is wrong here, but grows too fond of sweet little Tiffany (played by twins Anniston and Price) to kick the travelers out.

Multiple threats to their anonymity arise during their time at the motor lodge, and Laurent walks between pulpy suspense and a more serious grimness as she presents the action. Very fine cinematography by Arnaud Potier, whose dreamy lensing was responsible for much of the appeal of the Anton Yelchin vehicle 5 to 7, perhaps draws inspiration from pictures William Eggleston took around this time. That would be appropriate, given the photographer's association with Big Star, who wrote the song Raquel whisper-sings to herself while Roy is deciding he's responsible for her. That song, "Thirteen," is far more known now than it was then, and Raquel is not a hip enough kid to have heard it. But the cheat is forgivable, especially given the song's evocation of a poignant adolescence Raquel never got to enjoy. If she and Roy manage to keep the kid out of trouble for the next few days, maybe Tiffany can have what she didn't.

Production companies: Low Spark Films, Jean Doumanian Productions
Cast: Ben Foster, Elle Fanning, Anniston Price, Tinsley Price, Beau Bridges, Adepero Aduye, Lili Reinhart, Maria Valverde, Robert Aramayo, C.K. McFarland
Director-screenwriter: Mélanie Laurent
Producer: Tyler Davidson
Executive producers: Jean Doumanian, Patrick Daly, Kevin Flanigan, Dexter Braff, Sean O'Brien
Director of photography: Arnaud Potier
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Lynette Meyer
Editors: Joseph Krings, Lance Edmands
Composer: Marc Chouarain
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee, Tracy Kilpatrick
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: WME, UTA, Cinetic

93 minutes

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