‘Battlecreek’: Santa Barbara Review

Alison Eastwood directs a slow-burn drama co-starring Bill Skarsgard and Claire Van Der Boom.

A girl, a gun and a life on the run have long served as a formula for many a man’s cinematic downfall, but director Alison Eastwood and screenwriter Anthea Anka take a detour around typical noir stylings, seeking a more elusive payoff to a traditional dramatic setup in Eastwood’s sophomore feature. Although Battlecreek doesn’t break much new ground and the path it treads has been more productively traversed elsewhere, further festival bookings seem assured, with perhaps an eventual specialty berth or cable slot to follow.

Eastwood has consistently kept up with an acting career that began on several of her father Clint Eastwood’s productions in the ‘90s while making a gradual shift to directing as well, focusing on character-driven drama. Her first feature Rails & Ties co-starred Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden, but for Battlecreek her cast is rather less recognizable and relegated to a small, nondescript Southern town, where young Henry Pearl (Bill Skarsgard) leads a nocturnal life. Although he’s already graduated from high school, he still can’t move on to an adult life, held back by his interfering mother Tallulah (Paula Malcomson) and an unusual skin condition that prevents him from risking any exposure to direct sunlight. In fact, when the sun burned Henry’s delicate skin as a child, he was left with permanent reddish scars on his neck and chest, increasing his solar sensitivity.

The Bottom Line

Good intentions are no substitute for good storytelling.

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So he spends his days indoors painting expansive canvases in his bedroom and his evenings working at a local garage run by Arthur (Delroy Lindo), his father’s former business partner. In truth it’s not much of a job, since the distributor stopped delivering any fuel some time ago, leaving Henry to dispense quarts of oil and pointed directions out of town to most any travelers passing through. That is, until a mysterious stranger turns up after her car breaks down outside of Battlecreek, requiring major work in Arthur’s shop. In order to pay for the repairs, Alison (Claire Van Der Boom) takes a waitressing job at the local diner where Henry regularly has his late-night meal before his shift at Arthur’s.

Although she’s initially standoffish, they gradually develop a tentative understanding that leads to long conversations, late-night dips in a local lake and an atypical relationship founded on mutual curiosity and a common sense of their outsider status. Tallulah doesn’t approve of Alison, however, suspecting that she has ulterior motives for befriending her son. Those concerns aren’t entirely misplaced, since Alison’s volatile past is about to catch up with her, threatening to sweep them all up in a violent clash as they confront the secrets they’ve all been keeping from one another. 

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Anka’s first produced script only fitfully resists the temptation to rely on cliches rather than creativity to tell Henry’s belated coming-of-age story. Eastwood seems disinclined to salvage the film from sentimental wallowing, either, indulging Anka’s conventionally conceived predilection for redeeming her physically and morally flawed characters, along with a set of predictable plot points that converge only with deliberate force. Together with cinematographer Kristian Dane Lawing, Eastwood ably handles the predominantly night-lit scenes, but despite some eye-catching individual sequences can’t manage to really ignite a potentially explosive subplot that propels Henry and Alison toward a new understanding of their circumstances.

Skarsgard’s hesitantly proffered performance doesn’t help establish much sympathy for Henry, who comes across as more of a chronic victim than a potentially proactive character. Van Der Boom’s role doesn’t quite gel, either, as Alison first plays the reluctant femme fatale before shifting to a more sensitive posture toward Henry that never really prevails.  

Gary Roach, who edited Eastwood’s debut and served as assistant editor on several of her father’s movies, rarely faces any challenges maintaining continuity, leaving it to Linette Shorr’s production design to convey the film’s suitably decrepit atmosphere.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival (Independent) 
Production companies: Red River Studios, Purple Rose Productions, Maindiner Entertainment
Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Claire Van Der Boom, Paula Malcomson, Delroy Lindo
Director: Alison Eastwood
Screenwriter: Anthea Anka
Producer: Connie Hoy
Executive producers: Ricky Hill, Stephen Hintz, Michael G. Wallace 
Director of photography: Kristian Dane Lawing
Production designer: Linette Shorr
Editor: Gary Roach

Not rated, 105 minutes