Sissy the Great

rexsissy Sissy the GreatLake City
Running time 92 minutes
Written and
directed by Hunter Hill and Perry Mowore
Starring Sissy Spacey, Troy Garity, Rebecca Romijn, Keith Carradine

Sissy Spacek could read her grocery list and hold my attention. So I am not surprised that her absorbing performance in Lake City makes an otherwise small, unexceptional little film seem a lot more important than it is. She’s a filmmaker’s best friend. Throw her some buckshot and she’ll convince you it’s caviar.

The filmmakers with a lot to be grateful for this time around are writer-directors Hunter Hill and Perry Moore, two transplanted Southerners who have based their movie on a traumatic childhood incident in Mr. Hill’s life. The story is a moving evocation of the bonds that tie mothers and sons in good times and bad. Ms. Spacek, in a role comprised of the same strong, implacable maternal forces that catapulted In the Bedroom to enduring greatness, plays Maggie Pope, a tough-tender woman of pioneer stock who has lost one son in a tragic accident and another son to the worldly destruction of big-city decadence in the fast lane. Living alone in the rambling house where she raised her family, facing a dwindling rural economy but refusing to sell out to developers her proud connection to the land she loves, she’s one of those “I will survive” moms you don’t see much anymore. Repairing her truck, carting home the fixings for her dinner, sitting on the front porch when the sun goes down, absorbed in thoughts of peace and balance in an unpleasantly changing world, she’s the kind of mom we should all be lucky enough to have—the kind of gingham-and-grits mom Thanksgiving Day reunions were invented for. A respected, hardworking member of the community with a warm smile and a friendly “Hi, y’all” for every neighbor, still hanging on to home and hearth even though she’s financially strapped, she has carved a niche in a rich Southern landscape made famous by William Faulkner, Horton Foote and Eudora Welty. Lake City, where she cannot be pried from the cornfields, is the kind of country-fried Southern town you always find in Sissy Spacek movies. It’s a perfect place to hide from the cruelty and violence of the outside world, lost in memories of happier times.

That reverie crashes to a halt with the unexpected arrival of Maggie’s son, Billy (the excellent Troy Garity), a desperate young man on the lam from Memphis drug dealers with his girlfriend’s son in tow. Billy has distanced himself from the way he was raised, but exposed again to his mother’s rock-solid family values, he experiences redemption in the comfort of local AA meetings; the trust of an old friend who has become a pretty local cop (Rebecca Romijn); and a new friendship with a gas station attendant who plays the guitar (Keith Carradine). Uncovering truths about guilt and blame that have torn the family apart for years, mother and son are brought closer than ever, and as the villains descend like vultures in time to poison the magnolias, they realize there is nothing they can’t face together.

Admittedly, it’s a bit hokey, but the humanity in Lake City far outweighs the occasional incredulity. Some first-rank talents have made significant contributions to the beauty and reality of this film. Both David Crank’s production design and the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Gantz depict the South in autumn (Virginia, I think) with an authenticity that is rare. The film has the outdoor reality of a Terrence Malick film, but there isn’t a slow moment or a single scene that drags on too long. What drags is a ghastly, ill-chosen title song called “World Without Tears” by a horror called Lucinda Williams, who sounds like road kill making one last stab at inhalation. Otherwise, there isn’t much to offend. What a blessing from Celluloid Heaven to see a movie about real people instead of cheesy animatronics and phony, computerized special effects. And there isn’t a trace of superficiality in any of the acting. Troy Garity made such an indelible impression on me in Soldier’s Girl, playing the mentally challenged army grunt murdered by his fellow recruits after falling in love with a transsexual, that I couldn’t wait to see what he might do next. He lives up to the anticipation with such individual potency and presence that I think he has both outgrown and surpassed the label of Jane Fonda’s son. As for Sissy Spacek, I can’t think of a sounder role to reflect the unique qualities that make her so special. Lake City may not be her greatest achievement, but in the way it combines the flawless integrity and no-frills honesty that have become her trademarks, it offers irrefutable proof of how valuable her artistry is to American motion pictures.

rreed@observer.com