By Elias Savada.
Doused with a familiar, filial melancholy, A Country Called Home is a bittersweet tale of a 25-year-old woman coming to grips with the ghosts in her estranged family’s closet. Music video helmer Anna Axster directed, co-wrote (with Jim Beggarly) and was a producer on her low budget, slow-cooking first feature. It’s the story of Ellie Edwards (Imogen Poots), a Los Angeles transplant with her older brother Cole (Shea Whigham of Boardwalk Empire, 2010-2014), who left their drunken dad back in Texas years ago after he wrecked the family car and killed mom. Ellie’s a rumpled, fragile soul, surviving on a bookstore job, but dreaming of a career as an industrial designer. She’s burdened with a self-centered, no-good boyfriend.
Ellie drops her California baggage when news of her father’s stroke and ultimate death sends her home with just carry-on to deal with the Texas baggage of her past and the burial of her father. Things don’t look any more promising in the Lone Star state. It’s Ellie’s brassy, hard-drinking, sort-of stepmother Amanda (Mary McCormack, playing off the irreverent, sassy character she played over five seasons in the USA Network crime drama In Plain Sight, 2008-2012) that further muddles Ellie’s last-minute decision to return to her best-forgotten roots. Amanda’s family hangs about, too, including grown son Jack and his motherless but well-centered toddler son Tommy.
The pleasant Jack is played, in his first featured role since Crazy Heart (2009), by Ryan Bingham, the director’s husband and an Oscar, Grammy, and a slew of other awards-winning composer of the original song The Weary Kind from that film. His instrumental guitar strum score here complements many of the extended, sit-around-and-talk sequences that populate the film. Those tunes are pleasant, too. But it is Poots who is in just about every frame of the film. Fans of 2007’s 28 Weeks Later should recall the British actress as a promising newcomer who then morphed into the female co-star in 2014’s Need for Speed. She’s featured in this summer’s 7-episodes series Roadies from Cameron Crowe.
Thankfully not as sugar-coated, romance-driven as a Nicholas Sparks film, Anxster does capture that small town feel nicely. It’s the kind of place where people drive lawn tractors in the streets, the freight trains amble by in the morning or afternoon sun, and a fight can erupt at a funeral. Rustic. Used. Opinionated (particularly against Ellie’s late father). This backwater also sports more than a handful of nasty people – the “word” kind, not the sticks-and-stones variety – at the Dairy Queen and at Charlie’s Bar, the local watering hole. It’s there that Ellie befriends local songstress Reno (Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis, fresh from 2015’s The Martian), a tomboy in cowboy’s clothing catering to the LGBT crowd (if one actually existed in the town). Appropriately, it is Canadian transgender musician Rae Spoon who provides the bluesy song interpretations for Reno’s character.
Then there are Ellie’s grandparents on her dad’s side that she never knew existed. The glorious June Squibb (Nebraska, 2013) and Norman Bennett as Judy and Bruce.
While a water tower announces the locale as Smithville, the filmed-on-location effort also absorbed the atmosphere of Schulenburg and Bastrop, Texas, where the film was shot in late 2014 (as the gasoline pump prices so indicate). It premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in mid-2015. Only recently was it picked up for worldwide release by Alchemy and Arc Entertainment, with a limited theatrical bow followed by a March 1st availability through VOD and iTunes.
Aside from some last minute get-back-at-the-small-town-minds action involving a smarmy shipping store owner, there’s not much fun afoot. These small town antics slightly lift up a generically folksy screenplay redeemed by some good acting. I can’t say the low-octane romantic storyline is believable in its brevity, with its wavering Should I Stay or Should I Go attitude.
A Country Called Home is a decent enough trip through the back roads of Texas, connecting with a partly dysfunctional family. It’s just not something that most viewers will want to write home about.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.