There is always something a little worrisome about a seeing a bunch of familiar names on the box for a film you've never heard of. More often than not, there's a reason you haven't heard of it. Occasionally, though, you have a film like Stephen Berra's The Good Life, populated by an interesting cast of top-notch up-and-comers (Zooey Deschanel, Mark Webber), character actors (Bruce McGill, Harry Dean Stanton, Donal Logue) and could-have-beens (Chris Klein, Patrick Fugit), and then as you watch it, you realize you've never heard of it because it was probably unmarketable.
I mean this as a compliment. The Good Life is a good film, unique and strongly told, but it is also strange and low-key and quiet and deliberately paced, and these are the kind of qualities that send the marketing people scrambling for a window to jump out of. And make no mistake, it's not the kind of film that is typically embraced by a large, mainstream audience. But for a certain kind of moviegoer, it is fascinating and invigorating. You know who you are.
Webber (Ethan Hawke's surrogate in The Hottest State) plays Jason, a lonesome young man in a small Nebraska town. He pumps gas during the day and works at an old movie theatre at night, and still can't scrape together enough money to keep the lights on for his mother, much less make the escape he so longs for. He doesn't fit in well in a town where everyone is either a football fan or football player, and his life is an unhappy drag until Frances (Deschanel) wanders into it; she's one of those damaged-but-exhilarating force-of-life types who shakes his existence up, and her appearance (and disappearance) causes him to re-examine where he's at and who he is.
The summary makes The Good Life sound a lot more straight-forward (and a lot less interesting) than it is--this is a film that's less about plot and more about mood and tone. It's a short film but is in no hurry, and there are moments of genuine emotion and beauty here. Director Berra fills the film with lovely, tiny touches, whether they're related to the narrative directly (the tenderness of the first love scene) or tangentially (the montage of Stanton preparing to open the doors at the theatre). Not every turn works, and you're not always sure exactly where it's going, but it is endlessly fascinating.
It's very much an actor's film. Webber is terrific in the challenging leading role, and Deschanel is a show-stopper, charismatic and effortlessly sexy. Stanton's work is simply heartbreaking, and Klein is better than I've ever seen him. On the other hand, some of the character roles are surprisingly small and underwritten, considering the fine actors who have filled them; Bruce McGill and Drea De Matteo have maybe a dozen lines each, and Bill Paxton's two brief scenes certainly don't warrant his prominent placement (above Webber, no less) on the box art. I'm not sure if some scenes were cut (there are no deleted scenes on the disc), but it seems strange to hire some of these folks and then give them so little to do.
So that's one reservation; the other is that the ending, while understandably hopeful, is just a little too neat for all the messiness that precedes it (and, at risk of entering spoiler territory, is a little bit of a cheat considering how the film opens). A little bit of uplift is understandably required at the end of a film like this, but it's all wrapped up in just a bit too easily. These are small concerns, though; this is an unusual film that's worth tracking down.