Dir: Aaron Woodley. USA . 2008. 95mins.

Those expecting Tennessee to be a Mariah Carey vanity vehicle are in for a letdown. What is most impressive about the film is Carey's brave, understated, deglamorised performance as an ensemble player rather than star. Yes, the film does come on the heels of her smash new album (Carey replaced Janet Jackson here), but the character is far from the laughable protagonist of Glitter. However, while hardcore Carey fans around the globe might check the film out, a sentimental script bogged down withcliches of southern life undermines what might have been a decent mini-road movie about three lost souls.

Two brothers, Carter (Rothenberg, recently of Mad Money and someone to watch out for) and Ellis (Peck, Gregory's grandson), sons of an abusive father, escape their home state of Tennessee in 1993 to try make ends meet elsewhere. In Texas they meet Krystal (Carey), a sassy diner waitress and aspiring songwriter who proudly wears corn rows and brassy gold hoop earrings. Perhaps for the sake of symmetry, Schaumberg has made Krystal's husband Frank (Reddick) - a mutant of a state trooper who is generally shot from a low angle just in case we don't get that he's a meanie - just as abusive as the boys' daddy.

Seizing a rare opportunity, she rides off with the siblings to free herself of Frank and the fear that he engenders. As you might expect, Carey does get her moment in the sun, combing out her locks like a l'Oreal model and entering a contest that affords her the opportunity to sing and strum the guitar. She wins, of course.

Younger brother Ellis, over-determinedly angelic, is diagnosed with leukemia, and the normally reckless Carter (a young man who also has trouble controlling his aggressive impulses, his attempts at redemption forming a weak subtext) and maternal Krystal coddle him. They embark on a search for the absent father, Ellis's only hope of survival - should their bone marrow be a perfect match.

In defiance of script logic, jealous Frank follows the trio to Tennessee and by some strange twist of fate, observes a battered wife emerging from a bar's toilet. In a nanosecond, he is transformed and leaves Krystal and the two men alone. All the way through, Schaumberg and Woodley provide flashbacks of the boys' earlier life at home thatfeel more like bathroom spray commercials than explanatory background. A side story in which the dying Ellis sets Carter up with an ex-girlfriend feels tacked on. As Ellis, Peck shows some inexperience, unlike Rothenberg, who has heaps of stage and TV work under his belt.

Toronto native Aaron Woodley, nephew of David Cronenberg and a fine animator, tries too hard to capture 'southernness' with billboards, neon, and other cheesy signifiers. (His efforts are also hindered by the uneven Deep South accents.) Screenwriter Russell Schaumberg, who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, provides him with way too much fodder - pruning of the screenplay could only have been advantageous.

Production companies

Lee Daniels Entertainment

Smokewood Entertainment

International sales

Micah Green/ CAA

(1) 310 288-4545


Lee Daniels


Russell Schaumburg


David Greene


Steve Edwards

Production design

Aidan Leroux


Mario Grigorov

Main cast

Adam Rothenberg

Ethan Peck

Mariah Carey

Lance Reddick

Bill Sage

Michelle Harris