A young ex-convict’s newfound freedom is precarious, and everyone’s options are slim pickins in Dixieland, a Mississippi-set drama by Hank Bedford. The writer-director’s debut feature is a slender story built from familiar parts and bolstered by a documentary element that interweaves the personal testimony of Magnolia State locals. With its picturesque decrepitude among trailer parks and low-rent gentlemen’s clubs, the movie has a certain pull, and leads Chris Zylka and Riley Keough ignite a convincing spark as lovers who dream of wider horizons. Even so, their fateful course unwinds less than persuasively, the vivid sense of place not enough to bring the one-last-heist setup fully to life.
A strong feel for the Deep South, less so for deep drama.
Theatrical prospects are modest, but the combo of up-and-coming stars and supporting turns by musicians Faith Hill and Steve Earle will give the film traction, especially on VOD platforms.
In her cutoffs and country bling, Mississippi native Hill makes an impression as the mother of Zylka’s Kermit. A young widow with an active social life, she cautions her son, who’s just completed a stint in prison and has vague notions of becoming a barber, against falling into old patterns and getting into trouble with his old friends. But trouble is his friends’ stock-in-trade. And the stock welcome-home for characters like Kermit, who are determined to go straight, is their enlistment in an urgent bit of criminal business. In this case it’s a deal set up by his friend CJ (R.J. Mitte, of Breaking Bad), a gang boss intent on expanding his small-potatoes empire.
Bedford adds a layer of redemption to the recycled scenario when Kermit falls for Rachel (Keough). Restless and flirty but with a tough veneer, she lives in the double-wide next door and is at a turning point herself. Kermit coaxes her through her stage fright during her first night dancing at a club that’s euphemistically named Mr. Sophistication and run by a most unsophisticated sicko (Brad Carter, in full-tilt dirtbag mode and sporting an extravagant mullet).
It’s only after Kermit sees a medical bill for Rachel’s cancer-stricken mother that he signs on for the inevitable job — “This one last bad choice.” As with most such choices, things don’t go according to plan. But to Bedford’s credit, the redemption thread plays out in an unexpected way, and there are non-clichéd character reactions amid the garden-variety action. Providing some of those, and injecting energy into the proceedings, is Earle’s spot-on portrayal of Kermit’s distrustful but big-hearted uncle.
Keough, who will appear in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road, and Zylka bring a languid intensity to their roles. For all the hard knocks life has thrown their way, the characters are still kids, acting grown-up but still crucially unformed. More telling than their instant romance is the way they cling to each other when they run into Kermit’s childhood best friend, the picture of conventional success.
Given his situation and his dangerously short fuse, dread hangs over Kermit. But the movie can feel slack when the tension should be strongest. Bedford, who has worked as an assistant to directors including David O. Russell, Tarsem Singh and Bennett Miller, has pulled together the dramatic pieces loosely and somewhat disjointedly.
He interrupts the action with snippets from interviews he conducted with five locals. Their voices, all compelling, range from mournful to celebratory to boastful as they talk about their lives. They enrich the film’s emotional texture overall but also feel like transparent attempts to amp its authenticity. They make the fictional story, with its formulaic hooks and angles, feel all the more manufactured.
The handheld camerawork by Tobias Datum (Smashed) rides a line between documentary and narrative and can be overly busy; at its best, it’s intimately in tune with the characters. Visual motifs, such as the image of birds circling overhead, start to look like filler rather than cinematic poetry, while West Dylan Thordson‘s winningly spare score grows more obvious and melodramatic, in parallel with the story.
If Bedford’s feel for the Southern setting — ably abetted by the design work of Jesika Farkas and Ashley Munns — is stronger than his directing, he does craft moments that transcend the story mechanics, tying together the fiction and nonfiction threads with insights that are organic rather than contrived. One of these occurs when Rachel’s dying mother assures her that “God’s an awesome guy.” It’s a throwaway moment that speaks volumes.
Production company: DeerJen
Cast: Chris Zylka, Riley Keough, Faith Hill, Steve Earle, RJ Mitte, Brad Carter, Spencer Lofranco, Fabian C. Moreno
Director: Hank Bedford
Screenwriter: Hank Bedford
Producer: Jen Gatien
Executive producers: Henry Bedford, Barbara Bedford, Michael Clofine
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Jesika Farkas
Costume designer: Ashley Munns
Editor: David Massachi
Composer: West Dylan Thordson
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
No rating, 99 minutes