The Good Life



PARK CITY -- Films about misfit kids trying to escape the oppression of their small town are practically a cottage industry. Director Steve Berra, a skateboarding champion making his feature debut, tries to pump new life into the genre by pushing the alienation of his characters to an extreme. While "The Good Life" is stylistically ambitious and heartfelt, it feels more forced than authentic. But quirkiness of the film could find it an audience on cable outlets.

Berra's characters exist in a kind of mythical version of Lincoln, Nebraska, where people appear out of nowhere and say things like, "You don't know you know me." There are two sides to this town: the mass of fevered college football fans and the few alienated souls who don't have a clue. Berra brings two of the unlikely lost souls together.

The lead character is named Jason Prayer (Mark Webber), lest you miss what kind of state his life is in. He works pumping gas, trying to get by and support his mother, but the defining fact of his life is that he has no body hair, the result of an immune system malfunction. Although he wears a wig, he is a man set apart by his condition.

Jason's one pleasure in life is working at the Capitol theater, one of the last of the dying breed of neighborhood movie houses. While helping his friend Gus (Harry Dean Stanton) show old movies such as "The Harvey Girls," in walks Frances (Zooey Deschanel) like a shady character out of a film noir, who claims she was a childhood singer. The details of her life also bear a striking resemblance to those of Garland's. Frances and Jason are, of course, soul mates, destined to ride into the sunset together.

At this point, Berra could have cued The Animals singing "I Got to Get Out of this Place," but he prefers more mournful strings and piano. Jason's life is a barrage of insults and defeats, the latest being the death of his despised father, who left his son with the message "Life is suffering and no one will ever love you." No wonder he's lost.

It's hard to know what to believe about Francis' stories of suicide, drugs and hospitization. Deschanel's big-hearted performance -- including a lovely rendition of "On the Sunnyside of the Street" -- makes the character appealing, if not quite convincing. What's clear is that she is a desperate character trying to cut her surprisingly close ties to the football culture in the worst way.

True to form, things go from bad to worse before they get better. The electricity is shut off at Jason's house, he gets beat up by the local thug and his beloved father figure Gus is losing his memory and barely recognizes him.

While it is impossible not to be moved by suffering like this, circumstances often seem more contrived than real. The Capitol theater, for instance, runs a repertory program that would make a New York movie house proud for an audience of two people night after night. And Jason's working class family comes off as the kind of one-dimensional people who exist only in movies, especially his over-the-top brother-in-law (Donal Logue).

Technically, "The Good Life" is an impressive first film for Berra. Patrice Lucien Cochet's photography suggests the magical atmosphere and gritty reality the director was apparently shooting for. And Gord Wilding's dead-on production design makes it clear why these people want out.

The Good Life
FarFalla Films
Credits: Director: Steve Berra; Writer: Berra; Producers: Lance Sloane, Patrick Markey, Devin Sloane; Executive Producer: Bill Paxton; Director of Photography: Patrice Lucien Cochet; Production Designer: Gord Wilding; Music: Joel Peterson, Don Davis; Costume Designer: Darena Snowe; Editor: Sean Hubbert.
Cast: Jason Prayer: Mark Webber; Frances: Zooey Deschanel; Gus: Harry Dean Stanton; Robbie: Bill Paxton; Tad: Chris Klein; Andrew: Patrick Fugit; Dana: Drea de Matteo; Frank Jones: Bruce McGill; Daryll: Donal Logue; Diane: Deborah Rush; Fred: Michael Baxter.
No MPAA rating, running time: 106 minutes.