Dir: A. Dean Bell. US. 2003. 96mins.

A well-matched combination of intelligent drama and understated performances, What Alice Found is a gem. Much more than the sum of its parts, it explores the emotional dynamics of a young woman who thinks she's found the ideal mother and then discovers she's not the ideal daughter. Strong critical and audience reaction on the festival circuit - at Sundance it received a Special Jury Prize for "emotional truth" -- should lead to specialised theatrical success, luring fans of such DV fare as The Celebration and Italian For Beginners. Best possible scenario: an Oscar nomination for veteran actress Judith Ivey.

Writer/director A Dean Bell and producer cinematographer Richard Connors have used digital video to great effect, and not just for technical and budgetary reasons. What Alice Found looks unremarkable but this is part of its conceit: it appears as straight-forward as it isn't. The DV look is also integral to capturing the homely characters and milieu. This Alice's wonderland is a series of truck stops and her looking-glass is a motor home The story lulls the audience into a false sense of surety - it's hard not to think one has seen this story before - and then proceeds to reverse each cliche.

Alice is a self-diagnosed loser who has left her north-eastern state to visit a friend at college in Florida. Driving south in her beaten-up car, she meets up with Sandra (Ivey) and Bill (Raymond) a nice middle-aged couple in a motor home who express concern about a young girl travelling alone. When Alice's car conveniently breaks down and her money goes missing, convention dictates that these very nice people should in fact be up to no good. Indeed, after a few days in the motor home, the truth comes out: Sandra is a prostitute, Bill is her pimp and together they work America's truck stops.

Alice is appalled but also intrigued and, being penniless, sorely tempted. She gives into temptation and turns her first trick, nauseated by the process but dazzled by the easy money. Soon she is part of the team, entrusting her earnings to Sandra. Cue the downward spiral.

But the craft of this story is in its subversion of expectation and the superbly developed relationship of Alice and Sandra. Newcomer Grace is ideally cast - unhappy but not morbidly so, streetwise but gullible, desperate to be anywhere but here, anybody but herself. Ivey is a wonder, capturing the inner strength of a faded Southern belle who might otherwise be dismissed at a glance. She reveals Sandra as a smooth operator, a professor of human nature blessed with a pragmatic entrepreneurial spirit. Delivered in a package of trashy folksy charm with a core of steely resolve and a hint of menace, it is an Oscar worthy performance.

Throughout the first and second acts, brief, well-placed flashbacks paint Alice's back-story and suggest the inciting incidents that triggered her escape - her envy of the college girl and the disappointment of being left behind, the embarrassment of having a mother who works in her high-school cafeteria, the temptation of an envelope of cash at the grocery where she worked; even her ability to handle a gun. By the end of the film these flashbacks say more about what Alice has failed to appreciate in her life than they do about her destiny.

Raymond is equally fine in the sole supporting role. Otherwise the remaining characters are seen much like the passers-by on roadtrips, fleetingly and then gone.

Prod co: Factory Films/Highland Entertainment
Int'l sales: Gotham Sales
Prods: Richard Connors
Scr: Bell
Cinematography: Connors
Art dir: Bryce Williams
Ed: Chris Houghton
Main cast: Judith Ivey, Bill Raymond, Emily Grace