Film- The Big Picture: It's great to be straight




111 MINS





110 MINS

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) isn't in good shape. He needs sticks to help him walk, his sight is failing, and his doctor reckons he's in the early stages of emphysema. He's an old man, "born when Coolidge was President of America", as his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) reminds him. But he's a stubborn old bird, too, and when he hears that his estranged brother, Lyle, has had a stroke, Alvin is determined to pay him a sick- call. The journey, from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt Zion, Wisconsin, is close to 300 miles, but that's not going to stop him: he'll just get on his lawnmower, a John Deere '66, and drive there.

That the film is based on a true story is worth remarking. That it's a film by David Lynch is enough to make you choke on your doughnut. What, no severed ears, no helium-gobbling psychopaths, no dancing dwarves? Can this really be David Lynch, Sultan of Strange? Yes, it can, and given that this is a film-maker who has founded a career on the outlandish and the unpredictable, perhaps we ought not be so surprised. Honouring the pun of its title, this movie gives it to us straight, unvarnished by the fashionable resins of irony and parody.

Straight, but not necessarily straightforward. This being a road movie, we should be prepared for digressions and stopovers. What's more, with that road being covered at approximately five miles an hour on Alvin's lawnmower, there's plenty of time to admire the scenery - not since Easy Rider has the burnished, autumnal landscape of mid-America been brought so rapturously alive. (The cinematography is by British veteran Freddie Francis.) Lynch even makes a joke of his hero's unscintillating pace. The camera, filming Alvin's progress from behind, swings up to survey the glorious horizon overhead, then looks back down - to find Alvin at almost the identical point where we left him.

Lynch hasn't abandoned quirkiness altogether, of course. Among the people Alvin encounters en route is a distraught woman whose car keeps hitting deer on the highway ("And I love deer!" she wails) and the twin mechanics whose bickering allows Alvin to whittle down the repair charges on his wheezing lawnmower. Elsewhere, a homiletic spirit prevails as he gives the benefit of his wisdom to a pregnant teenage runaway, or a bunch of cyclists who've whipped past him on the road earlier that day.

The cornball philosophising would probably grate were it not for Richard Farnsworth's weathered presence, his mournfully rheumy eyes and contemplative pauses suggesting a life which hasn't always enjoyed such tranquillity. Indeed, the most affecting scene in the film involves Alvin and a fellow Second World War veteran talking quietly in a bar, recalling the indiscriminate slaughter of young men that haunts them 50 years on.

Hard-core Lynch fans, the ones who thrilled to Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, may find themselves a tad impatient with the measured, reflective rhythm of The Straight Story. Even non-Lynchites may be bemused by the idea of a doddery 73-year-old geezer inching his way along the roadside while supertankers thunder monstrously by. Yet there's something irresistible about its heart-warming belief in American decency, its assumption that, even this late in the century, there's always a welcome for folks just passing through. Salute David Lynch, mild at heart.

There's a moment in the film when Alvin shows a young woman a bunch of twigs bound together. "That's family," he tells her. Show that to Ann August (Natalie Portman), stroppy adolescent heroine of Anywhere But Here, and she'd probably snort and say that it reminded her of The Blair Witch Project. Ann is reluctant companion to her scatty, wilful and insanely optimistic mother Adele (Susan Sarandon), who's decided to leave their home in Wisconsin and head for the glittering promise of Beverly Hills. Once they get there, the promise soon tarnishes. Mother and daughter continue bickering through a succession of crummy one-bedroom apartments and dead- end jobs. "We did not come to Beverly Hills to struggle," says Adele determinedly, just before the electricity gives out - another forgotten bill - and they're plunged into darkness.

Adapted from Mona Simpson's novel, the film proceeds in a plotless, haphazard fashion. I had a slight dread of it, having found Wayne Wang's previous adaptation of a women-together novel, The Joy Luck Club, almost insufferable in its lachrymosity. True, the tears flow pretty freely here, but the frenzy of unhappiness which Sarandon and Portman stir up together is that bit more credible, and far less ingratiating.

Wearing her Thelma and Louise shades and overbright lipstick, Sarandon really takes to the role of the woman who loves not wisely but too well, and her fling with a hunky orthodontist ("He's more than just a dentist - he's writing a screenplay!") is painful in the way its doom is apparent to everyone but her.

As for Natalie Portman, she's miraculous as Ann, grudgingly compelled to play mother to Adele's flighty romantic. There is still something gawky and heartbreaking about her presence, which Ted Demme was the first to locate in Beautiful Girls and George Lucas almost managed to eclipse in his dreadful Phantom Menace. I pity her the necessity of struggling through the next two Star Wars instalments, but if the directness of her gaze and the confidence of her demeanour are anything to go by, she'll be strong enough to cope. She's amazingly watchable here, making tippy-toes progress towards sexual initiation and emotional independence, while never straining the effect by trying to be too knowing. Anywhere But Here is familial drama served up with extra hugs and lessons, and caught in the wrong mood you might just hate it. But it got to me.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test