You see towns just like it all through the South, or at least I did growing up in Texas: loose clusters of flat, one-story buildings lining flat, empty streets stretching into infinity. There’s always a water tower — usually the tallest structure for miles, a handful of gas stations and fast food restaurants and bars that only seem to appear at nighttime. Here folks wear Stetson hats and cowboy boots without a hint of irony. Driving through, one notices plenty of buildings, but few houses. The people seem to spring out of the ground with the sun and vanish with the darkness. Outsiders like Ellie (Imogen Poots) don’t seem to belong here. But then neither did her recently deceased father. If everybody knows everybody in small towns, then he was the exceptional person that everyone strove not to know. A cruel drunk, his habit led to his wife’s death and his children’s estrangement. But now that he’s gone, Ellie flies from Los Angeles seeking an inexplicable something. Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Closure? It’s difficult to say.
Originating on Kickstarter, Anna Axster and her husband, Oscar-winning songwriter Ryan Bingham, managed to raise an impressive $100,000 for their debut feature-length film A Country Called Home in just a few weeks. In their account profile, she describes the film as a metaphor for becoming an adult and growing up. But the film works best as a portrait of failure: Ellie’s life has fallen apart thanks to a parasitic boyfriend. Her stepmother flounders in a paralysis of self-loathing and laziness, depending on her son Jack (Bingham) for money while peacocking herself up in a vain attempt to recapture her high school glory days. Her only friend in town is a transgender country singer named Reno (Mackenzie Davis) whose diabetic mom seems perfectly content with eating herself into an early grave. The only people who don’t seem to want to leave town are Ellie’s grandparents — who she didn’t even know existed until she arrived for her father’s funeral — who seem happy with living out their few remaining days as pleasantly and inoffensively as possible.
I suspect different people will have different reactions to A Country Called Home. While I found it sincere, I felt like it meandered too much and suffered from anxiety over what kind of a film it wanted to be. It swerves between tragedy, coming of age and almost teeters into black comedy during the funeral scene where a drunk interrupts the proceedings. Of course, that may have been Axster’s intention: mimic the misdirection and uncertainty in Ellie’s life with an equally misguided narrative. But I remain unconvinced.