On the Road with Alice-Rednecks and R.V.’s Abound

A. Dean Bell’s What Alice Found , qualifies as the latest example of an independent film of limited means and unlimited artistry that has made this year of moviegoing so unpredictably invigorating. It seems we’re passing through a period in which low-budget productions shot on digital video provide more luminous, lifelike characters, compelling drama and nuanced feelings than what’s on offer in most mega-productions with big-star cachet.

Yet What Alice Found is hardly a cult B-picture from the bygone days of double features-the acting and writing are much too good for that, and the grown-up sex on display is explicit without being degrading or exploitational. Still, as the title suggests, there’s a fairy-tale quality to this rite-of-passage adventure of menaced innocence that evokes a darker Alice in Wonderland , a tale of malignant mysteries on the open highway traversed by cars, trucks and R.V.’s (recreational vehicles), the latter carrying the restless spirit of the narrative.

When we first see Alice (played by the 25-year-old newcomer Emily Grace), she’s already in transit, filling up her tank at a gas station. We later learn that she’s driving away from her unhappy home in New Hampshire and her depressed, divorced single mother (Jane Lincoln Taylor). While on the road, Alice never calls home but does keep in contact with a girlfriend named Julie, who’s already in Miami, the destination that Alice is heading for (she plans to study marine biology at the University of Miami).

On the road, Alice encounters a car full of rednecks shouting obscenities, but far from being fearful, she defiantly gives them the finger as they speed past her. Sufficiently shaken by the experience, she checks whether they’re waiting for her at the next rest stop. When she returns to her car from the bathroom, she finds that one of her tires has been punctured.

It’s at this point that Alice is befriended by two seeming Good Samaritans, Sandra (Judith Ivey) and Bill (Bill Raymond), a middle-aged couple traveling about in their R.V. (“everywhere it doesn’t snow”). They tell Alice that they saw a rough-looking young man lurking suspiciously around her car, and at one point saw him stoop down-that could’ve been when he punctured her tire, Sandra and Bill suggest. Alice-who is now truly alarmed by the dangers facing her on the road-is grateful for their attention, particularly when Bill changes her tire without being asked, while the very talkative Sandra keeps trying to calm her down. Sandra suggests that she follow their R.V. on the highway, just in case she’s being stalked by the man who punctured her tire. Alice agrees to follow them, but when her car completely breaks down, and the R.V. disappears up ahead, Alice is seized with panic-especially after a car stops ahead and a tall man emerges out of the dark night. She flees to the bushes on the side of the road and cowers there until she sees the R.V. returning. Bill and Sandra emerge to confront the stranger at a distance and tell him that his services aren’t needed; both the stranger and Alice notice that Bill is packing a gun. The stranger departs, and Alice hesitantly accepts Sandra’s offer to travel with them until she reaches her destination.

Of course, Sandra and Bill are not exactly the Samaritans they pretend to be; if they were, there would be no movie, and certainly no suspense. But who are they exactly? This is where all the nuance comes in: Alice isn’t exactly what she pretends to be, either.

As Alice enters the world of R.V. families and the truck drivers who share their rest stops, she gradually realizes that Bill procures male customers for Sandra in an orderly, business-like fashion. But Bill and Sandra make no effort to recruit Alice for their “business.” Rather, it is she who jumps at the chance to make more money than she’s ever dreamed of in her “honest” job as a waitress.

The picture could go in so many disastrous directions from this point on, with all the characters demolished in the sleazy wreckage. A gun is flashed, a shot is fired, a great many lies are exposed, but Sandra, Bill and Alice emerge not as a newfound family exactly, nor as villains and victims, but as three ever-vulnerable human beings doing the best they can to survive.

In this extraordinary season, it seems that every other picture is blessed with what the critics herald as Oscar-worthy performances. What Alice Found may never even be seen by most of the academy’s voters-alas, they’ll be missing a beautifully harmonized trio of performers in Ms. Ivey, Mr. Raymond and Ms. Grace. These actors invest their beleaguered characters with the dignity, strength and resilience to live their lives of frantic desperation without surrendering to self-pity or self-hatred. And if that’s not a form of heroism, I don’t know what is.

Something Fishy

Tim Burton’s Big Fish , from a screenplay by John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, never allows its many creative cooks to spoil its tangy broth of whimsy, mythology and sweet romance. Not only is Mr. Burton at the top of his form in endowing his tallest stories and wildest magical conceits with emotional conviction, but he is aided by a superb acting ensemble that never loses its footing in the treacherous swamps of make-believe. To put a point to it, Big Fish works-for me, at least-though some viewers may decide it’s gone over the top with its spectacularly Felliniesque ending (the prodigal son emotionally reunited with a father maddeningly insistent on embellishing his real-life experiences with the tallest tales he can imagine).

Mr. Wallace, a native of Alabama, set his novel in this state of rivers. The filmmakers have followed suit by shooting close to many Alabama rivers, locations that evoke the watery myths and legends of Edward Bloom. Young Edward didn’t want to be a “big fish in a little pond,” and thus set out for the bigger world outside his little Alabama town. The young Edward is played by Ewan McGregor, the older Edward by Albert Finney in a felicitous combination of age-differential casting for a single character. There’s a similarly smooth transition in the casting of Sandra, the great love of Edward’s life-Alison Lohman plays the young Sandra and Jessica Lange the older. That this love is an enduring one is movingly confirmed by exquisite expressions of romantic passion at both stages-young and old-of the life cycle. In between are all sorts of enchanting creatures, like Helena Bonham Carter’s Jenny in Edward’s real life and the Witch in his feverish imagination (she has the power to predict one’s death from the reflection in her glass eye); Steve Buscemi’s Norther Winslow, who evolves from failed poet to inept bank robber to Wall Street tycoon; Danny DeVito’s Amos Calloway, an unscrupulous circus ringmaster who doubles as a werewolf on the side; and the real-life gentle giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), who has been authenticated in the Guinness Book of Records as having the largest feet in the world: size 28.5.

Billy Crudup as Bloom’s son has the hardest role in serving as the audience’s surrogate skeptic over his father’s surrealist exaggerations, at least at first. Feeling that he has never known his father except through his myths, he’s fled to Paris, begun writing his own stories, and plans on marrying a Frenchwoman named Josephine (Marion Cotillard) who becomes the last devoted listener to her beloved father-in-law’s heroic fantasies. The rivers and their legendary jumping fish are the recurring metaphors for the fluid grace of this marvelous conjunction of talents in yet another father-and-son epiphany.

London in Love

Richard Curtis’ Love Actually , from his own screenplay, is a difficult film to evaluate because it’s made up of so many separate stories, most of which end up being interconnected either spatially or thematically. It’s as if London were peopled by one big happy family all the way up to 10 Downing Street. The British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, not only falls in love with a member of his household staff, but gets to tell off the President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) after he catches him making a pass at the P.M.’s secret love (Martine McCutcheon). Are we talking George Bush or Bill Clinton here? Either way, it’s pure fantasy inasmuch as our real-life President gave not a crumb to the embattled prime minister on either steel tariffs or the nine British subjects detained at Guantánamo-and to make matters worse, Tony Blair didn’t say boo, at least not in public.

So you get an idea of the level of hopeful fantasy from which Mr. Curtis is operating. Still, all is not sweetness and light, even in the sunny romanticism that mirrors Mr. Curtis’ previous movie valentines: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), each of which he wrote or co-wrote. However, Love Actually is Mr. Curtis’ first directorial assignment, and the expert timing of the various episodes reflects his long experience in television comedy with his sometime partner, Rowan Atkinson, who’s given two short fuss-budget cameos for some of the laughs. Most of the giggles however, are garnered by Bill Nighy’s outrageously uninhibited over-the-hill rock star.

But my favorite characters are played by Emma Thompson and Laura Linney as two uncharacteristic (for this film) losers in the game of love. Alan Rickman plays the closest thing to an unmitigated cad, one who even lacks the courage of his carnality. There is also an innocent romance between two stand-ins blocking a soft-core porn film; a big plug for the European Union in the relationship between characters played by Colin Firth (who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese) and Lúcia Moniz (who doesn’t speak a word of English); and a sickly relationship between Liam Neeson’s widowed stepfather and his lovesick little boy, played much too smoothly by the frighteningly mature Thomas Sangster. The film’s cleverest piece of mise en scène involves Andrew Lincoln’s mute courtship of his best friend’s wife, played by Keira Knightly. Finally, it strikes me that Ms. Thompson here has the equally sad role played by Kristin Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral . Funny that one remembers the sad love stories longer than the happy ones. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie until, in the end, it went somewhat bonkers with what amounted to a communal love fest on Christmas Eve. Love is actually more personal than that, don’t you think?