Dir. Chusy Haney-Jardine, USA, 2008, 124mins
The portentously titled Anywhere USA is a triptych of Americana by debut writer/director Chusy Haney-Jardine - a trailer-trash farce, an uncle/niece meditation on the death of parents, and a clumsy satire on racial anxiety among the rich and White.
Haney-Jardine, who says the film draws on his autobiography, is experimenting with acting, storytelling and structure in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina (despite the title), and the Sundance festival fervor for this film will have certainly settled by the time Anywhere USA hits theatres anywhere in the USA. The film should have a nice ride on the festival circuit in the US and internationally, but its pretentious tone and monotonous stories won't draw the crowds, even with some critical support. Foreign interest is likely to be confined to festivals.
Anywhere USA begins with an anti-pastoral section, Penance, in which a Southern good old boy is beaten with a tennis racquet by his girlfriend. In between the trading of confidences by large women in trailers, we spy what looks like a romance blooming between one of them and an Arab man whom the men in the trailer park suspect of being an Al Qaeda agent. In the free-for-all that follows, there are a lot of exposed bellies and an angry dwarf. You get the feeling of what it might be like if the Dardennes Brothers got drunk and made a comedy.
Loss, the second leg, is an odd treatment of mourning, and the third, Ignorance, about a White man who wakes up and realizes that he has no Black friends, is broad caricature in the Steve Martin mould of Bringing Down the House.
In directing his three stories, Haney-Jardine is working with non-professional actors (except for his daughter, Perla, who plays a young bereaved girl in Loss.) All the cast was recruited in Asheville. Calling the performances acting is already a stretch. Hometown testimony or community filmmaking might be better terms. As they say, sometimes non-professionals are just non-professionals.
Haney-Jardine is also a non-professional, sometimes on target, but often just experimenting with something. Like the ad hoc directing, camera work by Patrick Rousseau ranges from the home-movie look to occasional polished effects. Production design by Bob Zimmerman seems like the cinematic equivalent of the found object.
Some of the performances do get you laughing. Mike Ellis plays Gene, the embattled husband in a trailer couple in Penance, who flies off the handle when, Little Rickie, the dwarf (Brian Fox), conducts a guerrilla surveillance campaign on Gene's wife. Homeland (or is it Down-Home') Security has never been quite this absurd.
Yet the absurdity is not sustained so enjoyably in the later sections, with rambling dialogues and soliloquies, oddly confused emotions, endless pauses, and shots that meander away from the action. Moments in the painfully long film call to mind the work of another North Carolinian, David Gordon Green, but next to Haney-Jardin, David Gordon Green is a man of tight structure.
Nothing if not personal, Anywhere USA charmed Sundance audiences as a movie that defied the low-budget cloning of Hollywood formulas. It should play well in an Asheville theatre. Anywhere else will be a challenge.
Sheliah Ray Hipps