Published at: Feb. 22, 2010, 9:33 a.m. CST by merrick
THAT EVENING SUN
It is the year of old codgers desperately clinging to their homes. First we had the elderly escapades of UP, where an old man is so attached to his home that he takes it with him to South America. THAT EVENING SUN deals with the same central dilemma, but in other ways it is the exact opposite of UP (maybe they should have called it DOWN). UP is a heartwarming cartoon adventure fantasy, while THAT EVENING SUN is an impressively realistic indie character piece. Here the protagonist doesn’t seek adventure – on the contrary, he just wants to live out the rest of his years in his own house. But he can’t let go of it as easily as a balloon, and instead the weight of the past may ultimately be his undoing
The setup is simple: Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) has recently moved to a retirement home, but he can’t stand it and escapes back to the farm he’s owned for decades. There he’s shocked to find his house occupied by the family of his shiftless nemesis, Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon). It turns out Abner’s son has rented out and is in the process of selling the property. Abner’s having none of it, and decides to squat out in the sharecropper’s cabin until he can find a way to get his home back. Lonzo’s daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska) befriends Abner and brings him food, which only infuriates her father more. What follows is an ever-escalating standoff that builds to a powerful conclusion.
As someone born and raised in the Southeast, it really pisses me off that Hollywood almost never represents the South accurately. Take TRUE BLOOD. Most of the actors have terrible accents, it is clearly shot on a set rather than on location, and there is just this sense of condescension that pervades the HBO show.
THAT EVENING SUN gets the South right. That dimension elevates the film from interesting indie character piece to rare gem. Writer-director Scott Teems reminds me of David Gordon Green for his ability to instill an overpowering sense of place.
Almost all of the cast and crew are from the Southeast, and it shows. The accents are perfect, and the setting is authentic, having been shot on location in Tennessee. Hal Holbrook delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the charmingly stubborn Abner. He carries the film, made all the more difficult by the fact that many of his scenes are alone (or only with a dog). But it is his scenes with his fellow old-timer and neighbor, played by Barry Corbin, that are my favorites. They are just two guys chewing the fat on a porch, but between their no-nonsense dispositions, their sadness at the way things have turned out, and their resignation to their waning influence, their conversations are fascinating. I could watch an entire film of just the two of them.
But an even bigger surprise is Ray McKinnon (the reverend from DEADWOOD!), playing the asshole neighbor and antagonist Choat (what a great name). He’s a lazy, wife-beating son of a bitch, and he commands his family like a Biblical patriarch. Still, despite all his failings, he’s trying to better himself. He isn’t pure villain, but we also aren’t quite sure whether we want to see him dead or redeemed. I’ve met plenty of guys like that in the rural South but I’ve never seen it played so convincingly on screen. It may well be the best performance I’ve seen all year.
Another surprise is Mia Wasikowsk, as daughter Pamela Choat. I was stunned to find out she was not from the South, but instead is from Australia. She’s playing Alice in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and while I planned to see that anyway, now I can’t wait for it.
It is a damn shame that independent film distribution is in such a sorry state. In the 60s and 70s, since Southerners weren’t being well served by Hollywood, they often took it upon themselves to make and distribute movies regionally. Many of these films are either obscure or all but lost, but I’ve lucky enough to have had an education from Quentin Tarantino when he’s brought some to Austin. THAT EVENING SUN is doing something similar -- after wrapping up a year on the festival circuit, one of the producers told me it is now playing in various theaters around the Southeast. If you have the chance, it is well worth your time and support to check it out in the theater. If you aren’t so lucky, give it a look on DVD.