Movies about small towns, and the longing their residents have to escape them, are commonplace in the American independent film circle. What was once a novel idea is now its own saturated sub-genre. It allows for quirky characters and logic, strong drama, and a great location to shoot a movie. These types of movies are perfect for new filmmakers and provide great roles for actors. They just get a little stale after a while. That is, unless someone comes around and does something different, like what was done by writer/director Steve Berra with The Good Life.
The film stars Mark Webber as an alopecic twentysomething named Jason who pumps gas by day and runs a movie theater at night. Even with two jobs, he struggles to pay the bills for himself and his mother. He longs to get out of his small Nebraskan town, but considering saving money is something of an impossibility at the moment, his dreams will have to wait. His day-to-day life seems about as stressful as it can be. His father, who just committed suicide, left Jason a package which he refuses to open.
Over the course of the film, Jason is going to meet many interesting characters who will begin to have him question where his life is headed. The most prominent of which is probably Frances (Zooey Deschanel), who shows up as a love interest, but an unconventional one. I won’t ruin any more than that. Jason’s best friend is the theater owner, Gus (Harry Dean Stanton), whose dementia is terrible and heartbreaking. Jason cares for him like a child, despite no blood relation between them.
There are more, all damaged and interesting in their own right. Like I said, these movies are good for lesser-known actors to be able to show off a little bit, and The Good Life certainly allows for this. I don’t know why people like Bill Paxton and Chris Klein get top billing on the poster — they each have two or three scenes and are far less important than Mark Webber or Harry Dean Stanton — but such is life in trying to market your movie, I suppose.
In one way or another, each of these characters represents a missed opportunity. At least, that the way I’m going to look at it. Each of them, like Jason, wanted to escape their small town roots, but they all failed and wound up settling down in their small Nebraskan town. Jason slowly begins to realize their faults as he progresses through the film, and this is what’s supposed to inspire a profound change in his outlook. Really, though, it has to act more as inspiration, doesn’t it? He wants to leave from the get-go; he just doesn’t have the ability — or perhaps the guts — to actually do it.
The Good Life doesn’t progress in a traditional or plot-oriented manner. It’s more about tone, about mood, and about character interactions. You’re not always sure where it’s going, and there are times when it seems to be veering off-course, but it always rights itself before it begins to lose our attention or its focus. It has a very strong idea of what it wants to accomplish, even if it isn’t always sure of the best way to go about it.
You will probably be left with more questions than you’ll have answered. That’s okay. Like I said, the plot really isn’t the focus here, so if all the details aren’t clarified in the end — who is Frances, anyway? — that’s okay. The mood is wonderfully set, and you’ll get the general feeling even if there’s some ambiguity when it comes to the story or the fates of some of the characters. The point the film wants to make will be clear enough, and you’ll have been entertained for 90 minutes while it is made.
Where the film struggles is in getting us to have an emotional connection to any of its characters. When everyone is just so weird, quirky, bizarre, etc., it’s hard to form any sort of bond with them. Even Jason, who is the most “normal” of the characters, is hard to feel attached to. Nobody is particularly well-developed, and they’re all so weird and not particularly life-like. People like this do exist in the real world, but they aren’t the only people you’ll find, which is how this movie portrays them.
You cannot, however, fault the actors. Despite not being your typical lead, Mark Webber does quite a good job as the protagonist. He brings some vulnerability to the role even with the strong will that’s required. Harry Dean Stanton delivers the most heartbreaking performance in the film as a dementia patient. He steals every scene and while he’s not in the film all that much, he is phenomenal. Zooey Deschanel is enchanting as the atypical love interest, and that’s really all that the film requires from her.
The Good Life is an interesting indie movie set in a small town and about the lead character encountering other characters who will help change his outlook on his future. Is it good? Yeah, it’s good. It’s enjoyable from start to finish, it introduces a whole host of interesting personalities, has a point and has a decent enough idea of how to portray it, and has great actors who turn in very strong performances. If you’re not absolutely sick of small-town indie movies, here’s one that does things a little differently and I recommend checking it out.