Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The 80s were big years for dysfunctional relationship movies, perhaps beginning with
Ordinary People; this problem picture about a
teenage girl trapped in an early 50s family torn by a father suffering from battle fatigue is
sensitive and observant, and perhaps a trifle pretentious. Basically the personal experience
of someone who lived through the 'duck and cover' Atom Bomb days with a borderline psycho dad, in
a culture in denial of his problems, Desert Bloom is a lot more hip than its title, which
refers to both the coming of age of the heroine, as well as the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.
Rose Chismore (Annabeth Gish) is an intelligent young teen in Las Vegas in 1950.
Her father jack (Jon Voight) still suffers from nightmares from the Battle of the
Bulge, and runs a gas station; her mother Lily (JoBeth Williams) works at a hotel but then gets
a job with the Atomic Energy Commission, which has started up a testing range in the wasteland
North of the city. Rose avoids her dad when he becomes belligerent and abusive, due to alcoholism.
She likes the kid in the trailer next door, Robin (Jay Underwood), and is practically the adopted
favorite of neighbor Mr. Mosol (Allen Garfield), who compliments her prowess in spelling bees, but Rose
considers running away when her father hits her. An emotional break comes with the arrival of Lily's
younger sister Starr (Ellen Barkin), a divorcee who wears racy dresses and chases fast men.
Starr is glamorous and fun to be around, but she's also a temptation for the unbalanced Jack.
A thoughtful, understated observance of the weird times after WW2 when above-ground testing was
being conducted in the Nevada desert, Desert Bloom shows the difficulty in growing up in
a time when there was no alternative to the tyrrany of an abusive father. The 'Atomic fear' story
content is sort of a thematic sideshow, an issue that places the personal story in a broader
context. The implication is that the greater issue puts an unseen psychic pressure on the lives
The Chismore family is an obvious placeholder for the country in 1950. The father is a scarred
veteran clinging to infantry glory. He's bitter over the unconversant generals and scientists
heading out to the desert to do the work of the Atom, as if depressed that war has evolved into
a form that's left him behind. Obsessed by the Bomb, he imagines himself the lonely defender of his
family against Communist saboteurs or agents, and he's suspicious
of 'those Jewish scientists', while contradicting himself by admiring Albert Einstein. Rose's mother
Lily is a good woman who faces hardship by maintaing a rosy outlook, no matter what the problem.
Everything bad is to be withstood with positive acceptance, including a husband who beats her daughter
black and blue, and, perhaps, a sister who threatens their marriage. All of these issues are seen
in retrospect, as the film is actually a diary-like account narrated from time to time by Rose
as an adult (voiced by Christine Lahti)
As far as Rose is concerned, these problems are everything, and she makes a desperate bid to run
away to her grandmother's, on the night of the big bomb test. The story doesn't try to equate the
two events, at least not directly, but the Drama 101 opportunity to compare the nuclear family to
the nuclear irresponsibility on the desert is a bit too pat. Desert Bloom remains endearing
because it stays with the intimate story, a virtue that some will take as a weakness.
Having come from a military family where Defense had an unspoken but constant presence, and having
often visited a grandma who lived in Henderson, near Vegas, I can vouch for the film's general
tone. When you're a kid, the Southwest desert seems incredibly clean, a quality that
Desert Bloom gets right. I can even remember the radio talk of bomb tests, although it
was in the early 60s, and by then they were probably being exploded underground. There was a
sort of grim acceptance of the Bomb as some kind of genie that had been loosed upon the world,
and when I heard military men talking about the Cold War situation in negative terms, it gave
me a fatalistic outlook that didn't clear up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
As Rose, Annabeth Gish (The X-Files) is adorable, wearing ugly-duckling glasses that she
thinks make her look sophisticated. Her main problem is living a sane life in such a volatile house.
JoBeth Williams at last gets a role worthy of her, and she communicates the grit and spirit of a
smart lower-middle class woman on her second husband, and wondering if she needs to look for a
third. Williams graces everything she appears in with her freshness and intelligence. Jon Voight
has the most difficult role, having to portray borderline psycho behavior like sitting on the
front porch in his combat outfit with a rifle across his lap, ready to shoot the Communists he's
sure are hiding
behind every cactus. Voight handles the acting well, of course, even though his character makes us
uncomfortable. We can't tell if he's going to go nuts and start shooting these people we like
At first glance, Ellen Barkin's rebounding divorcee role comes off as a retread of the Marilyn part
in The Misfits, but Barkin distinguishes herself with the opportunity to bond with the Rose
character in ways that Rose's mother cannot. Rose understands Aunt Starr's wildness, and eagerly
laps up her lessons in feminine wiles. These include a strapless dress that makes her the star of a
very cute adolescent party, complete with scrubbed kids, line dancing and fawning adult chaperones.
And up for special mention is Allen Garfield, who here is allowed to play a sympathetic all-around
good guy instead of his usual weasels or schemers. His Mr. Mosel is a
supportive friend to Rose, one of those rare adults who takes a healthy interest in those around
him. Thanks to Garfield's sincerity, the scene where he begs Lily for a clue as to when the Atom
test is scheduled, is very deeply felt.
Tangentially an Atom-age drama, like On the Beach or Testament, Desert Bloom
is a subtle, non-apocalyptic take on the same equation. It was partially funded by PBS television,
and had a modest theatrical release. 1
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Desert Bloom upholds their high standard of quality with an
enhanced transfer that captures perfectly the pastel colors and desert browns of the Vegas setting.
There are no extras, just some bonus trailers, but that's fine with me. It's a disc I'm going to
encourage my friends to see - it pushed itself up ahead of other titles to be reviewed, mainly because
I couldn't resist it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Desert Bloom rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 22, 2003
1. Another PBS-funded movie from the time that Savant thought was
excellent (his VHS from early 80s cable television disintegrated years ago) is a terrific show
about corruption and resistance called A Flash of Green, with Ed Harris and Blair Brown.
I sure wish someone would make it available ...
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson