Three Dramas from Screen Media Films
The Good Student (February 28/09)
Starring Tim Daly, Hayden Panettiere, and William Sadler, The Good Student casts Daly as Ronald Gibb - a withdrawn teacher who finds himself suspected of kidnapping following the disappearance of a student (Panettiere's Allyson Palmer) from her home. There's little doubt that The Good Student fares best in its opening half hour, with the emphasis on Ronald's pathetic day-to-day exploits (ie he surreptitiously attempts to rent an adult video) effectively transforming him into a figure worthy of the viewer's sympathy and also lending the proceedings the distinct air of a low-key yet undeniably irresistible character study. The introspective atmosphere is cemented by Daly's subtle, downright engrossing turn as the depressive protagonist, while the eclectic supporting cast adds a fair amount of color to the production (Sadler's gleefully over-the-top work as Allyson's used-car-salesman father is surely a highlight). It's only as the plot thickens that one's interest starts to wane, as screenwriter Adam Targum's decision to stress distinctly sensationalistic elements inevitably undermines the authenticity of the main character's plight. Targum's subsequent efforts at compensating for the increasingly tawdry ambiance generally fall flat, with Ronald's promising yet pointless relationship with a friendly neighbor (Paula Devicq's Holly) emblematic of the script's progressively misguided sensibilities. The final straw comes with the reveal of the kidnapper's identity, which - although relatively unexpected - doesn't entirely jibe with what we know about this person and would've required a level of cunning and planning that simply isn't plausible. The end result is an endeavor that ultimately just misses the mark, despite its appealing premise and uniformly strong performances.
Though it gets off to an awfully slow start, Lake City ultimately establishes itself as a compelling little drama that benefits substantially from its uniformly affecting performances. The unapologetically thin storyline follows sketchy deadbeat Billy Margaret (Troy Garity) as he's forced to return to his childhood home after angering a local drug dealer (an impressively sinister Dave Matthews), with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently detailing Billy's efforts at reconciling with his mother (Sissy Spacek's Maggie), forging a bond with his son (Colin Ford's Clayton), and romancing a local police officer (Rebecca Romijn's Jennifer). Filmmakers Hunter Hill and Perry Moore's decidedly laid-back approach to their own screenplay ensures that Lake City's opening half hour is almost disastrously uneventful, as the pair's less-is-more modus operandi leaves the initially-unappealing characters with little to do but brood. That being said, there does reach a point at which the viewer is slowly-but-surely drawn into the low-key exploits of the protagonists - with the increasingly compelling small-town atmosphere certainly proving instrumental in the movie's transformation from tedious indie to engrossing drama. Spacek's expectedly impressive performance is matched by Garity's nuanced work as Maggie's troubled offspring, and it's not surprising to note that the film's emotional peak comes with an explosive confrontation between mother and son regarding a long-repressed personal tragedy. The action-packed climax - which, though entirely incongruous, is undoubtedly quite entertaining - ensures that Lake City concludes on a high note, and it does seem likely that the film would only improve on repeat viewings (ie that first act has nowhere to go but up).
Armed with Maggie Gyllenhaal's compelling, downright hypnotic performance, SherryBaby generally manages to overcome its almost egregiously familiar sensibilities to become an entertaining (yet hopelessly uneven) piece of work. The film stars Gyllenhaal as Sherry Swanson, a recently paroled drug addict who returns home hoping to make a fresh start with her young daughter (Ryan Simpkins' Alexis) - though, as inevitably becomes clear, this proves to be far more difficult than Sherry might've anticipated. Filmmaker Laurie Collyer has infused SherryBaby with the feel of a typically bleak kitchen-sink character study, and although the writer/director does a nice job of hard-wiring the movie with a palpable vibe of authenticity, there's simply never a point at which the viewer is drawn into the storyline or the characters (with the almost total lack of surprises surely playing an instrumental role in the film's inherently underwhelming nature). This is despite the inclusion of one or two genuinely compelling sequences and Gyllenhaal's revelatory turn as the grizzled central character; in terms of the former, there's little doubt that Sherry's encounters with her no-nonsense parole officer (Giancarlo Esposito's Hernandez) remain a highlight within the proceedings. It's ultimately all-too-apparent that SherryBaby is simply (and consistently) unable to make it up to the level of Gyllenhaal's phenomenal performance, with the total lack of emotional resonance certainly reflecting the movie's less-than-engrossing modus operandi.