Movie Reviews
11:57 am
Fri May 28, 2004

A Slipping Down Life

The sheer truth of a young couple trying to escape their tyrannical roots to be reborn.

I am a fan of Flannery O'Connor's Southern gothic, the kind of short stories that define "grotesque," where humor is slow, characters are off center, defects abound, and life is a series of stops along the born-again trail. First-time writer/director Toni Kalem ("Sopranos") channels O'Connor when a lady sitting in an early scene of "A Slipping Down Life" has a large wound on her knee, not featured but just there as the camera pans the group.

Besides minor grotesqueries, the major one consists of the name Evie Decker (Lili Taylor, "Casa De Los Babys") inversely carves on her forehead with broken glass: "Drumstrings. " "Drum" Casey (Guy Pearce, "Memento") is a soulful country singer catching wallflower Evie's fancy, implausibly marrying her, and along with her going through a few hells on the road to rebirth. The thirteen original songs Pearce sings are melancholic country, all the more impressive because of his singing.

The road is littered with Southern stereotypes (O'Connor never allowed those types in her very original stories) like Clotelia (Irma P. Hall, "Lady Killers"), whose black housekeeper is a true throwback to unoriginal Hollywood typing of the early 20th century. Add Drum's rube family members and slutty Faye-Jean Lindsay (Shawnee Smith) as an oversexed, overacting girl friend and you have an inexperienced director ignoring the nuances of Anne Tyler's novel, from which Kalem

adapted.

But "A Slipping Down Life" belongs to Lili Taylor, who gives us a sympathetic young virgin, lovingly attached to her introverted widower father and doggedly determined to make something of Drum's talent and her life. Her underplayed demeanor and plain looks offset the grotesque mark on her forehead; her strength of character ("I've never backed down on anything in my life") serves further to distance her from the usual Southern hicks so popular in immature cinema.

In his "Autobiography," W.B. Yeats described the link between self and happiness and renewal so much a part of this film's power: "I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed."

Although the story brings no surprises and repeats some Southern chestnuts, the film ultimately succeeds because of the principals' considerable acting talent and the sheer truth of a young couple trying to escape their tyrannical roots to be reborn.