What makes a good drama? Let's see: compelling characters that the viewer can easily relate to, for starters. A good drama also needs strong performances that can make you forget you're watching a movie. There's usually a conflict and eventual resolution, made believable through a strong story and character interaction. If nothing else, some nice scenery even helps. Yet throughout the 102-minute running time of Cavedweller (2004), it was pretty tough to notice any of these. This certainly wasn't a film devoid of meaning or laughably bad---it was just there, wallowing in its own bleakness.
As a devout carrier of the "Y" chromosome, I've never been a ardent fan of The Lifetime Network. I can usually smell signs of a Lifetime movie a mile away, though---in truth, you just have to know what to look for (example: dirty pickup trucks are signs of a violent, abusive husband). Still, it wouldn't be fair to put Cavedweller in this category, because it actually does attempt to break out of its mold a few times, even if the plot doesn't grab you. It goes like this: Delia Byrd (Kyra Sedgwick) was the victim of an abusive first husband, Clint (Aidan Quinn), so she up and leaves him and her two young daughters for Randall (Kevin Bacon, Sedgwick's real-life husband) and a second chance at life. After the sudden death of Randall several years later, Delia decides to return to her small-town roots and get custody of the girls she abandoned. With nothing else to lose, she packs up and heads south with Cissy (Regan Arnold), the daughter she had with Randall. There's some rough road ahead, too: Clint's in bad health, and his girls don't exactly warm up to their long-lost mother.
If nothing else, I'll give Cavedweller this: at least it portrays its central characters with realistic flaws. Even if the plot is a bit of a stretch, these are characters that are undoubtedly human. Here's where the problems start, though: for the most part, everyone in this story is someone we've seen before. Cissy is little more than your average anti-social preteen tomboy, and the film's flashbacks show Clint as every short-tempered, jealous husband that the previously mentioned network has coughed up. The other daughters are even worse: Dede (April Mullen) plays the the rebellious drama queen, while Amanda (Vanesse Zima) is the devout goodie two-shoes who quotes the Bible almost non-stop---and unfortunately, it's usually the Old Testament. For some reason, Delia's best friend Rosemary (Jill Scott) even shows up at the new place unannounced. Don't these people have jobs?
Many times, supporting characters don't really serve any purpose other than to fill some time and disappear. Clint's mother makes a brief appearance, only to shout a few fire-and-brimstone comments...and we don't really hear from her again. Grandpa's no different, as he plays host for the mother and daughter early on...and we don't really hear from him again. M.T. (Sherilyn Fenn) is an old friend of Delia's, but she appears in one scene to offer a bit of guidance...and, well, you get the picture. Even Rosemary herself is basically filler, often times acting as little more than a second mother to the young girls. After the sudden death of one dad and the failing health (and abusive history) of another, what these girls really need is a good father---not another mom.
For all its faults, though, Cavedweller did have a few redeeming qualities. Sedgwick's performance was indeed a brave one---it's not always easy to pull off a flawed main character, but she pulls it off nicely. Despite a fairly slow-moving second act, the first and third portions of the film exhibit good pacing and confident directing. The cinematography is also noteworthy---for such a reality-based story, there is some nice scenery to look at. The film still doesn't stand out from the crowd, but those looking for a deliberate, reflective drama could do a lot worse.
On the other hand, they could do a lot better.
Take it or leave it, Cavedweller arrives on DVD courtesy of Showtime Entertainment. Even with a good technical presentation, this disc really suffers from a complete lack of real bonus materials. Director Lisa Cholodenko and Dorothy Allison (author of the original novel) are nowhere to be found, and a bit of participation might have saved this disc from obscurity. If nothing else, a commentary track or an interview may have helped explain what the director was really aiming for. As it stands, there's not much to go on...but let's check this one out in more detail, shall we?
Cavedweller features a pleasing 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that does its job quite nicely. Although it's not a visually-driven film, Cavedweller has a natural, earthy color palette that is clean, clear, and easy on the eyes. Flashbacks are slightly desaturated and grainy---a conscious choice, not a technical flaw---and there's no major digital imperfections to be found. The audio is available in English 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes (with an optional Spanish mono track) and features clear dialogue and a subtle atmosphere---hardly immersive, but a solid mix nonetheless. The only distracting flaw in the sound that jumped out was during one of the musical numbers (played during the film and featured on the main menu), as the high end seemed almost completely blown out. It's hard to describe, but noticeable enough for most ears to pick up quite easily.
I'm sure I wasn't the target market for this film, but Cavedweller still suffers from plenty of fundamental flaws. A handful of uneven performances is one thing, but the characters themselves aren't much better---trust me, these are some of the most generic Lifetime-grade caricatures you'll ever see. Although the first 45 minutes drift by fairly smoothly, things come to a screeching halt once the central characters are all under the same roof---and sadly enough, this is where the film should have really picked up. It's certainly not the worst film you'll ever see, but Cavedweller isn't exciting enough to really stand out. While the DVD boasts a fine technical presentation, the lack of bonus features doesn't justify the bloated $27 price tag. It's a rental at best for any interested parties, but most drama lovers are better off leaving this disc on the shelf. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.