"Gas Food Lodging," which opens today at the Charles, is about the necessities: love sex trust. Affectless and decent, it tTC watches as a mother and her two daughters try to eke out a life under the harsh New Mexico sky. Alas, sooner or later, they must each come to some kind of terms with those alien creatures whom they loathe and want, hate and need -- men.
The sensibility is Modern Western, out of McMurtry and McGuane: big sky, shabby trailer parks, the scufflings of a baffled, hurting but fundamentally decent working class. No lawmen anywhere in sight: we are among the waitresses and truck drivers and appliance installers who have taken over where cowboys once trod. Everybody's tired; nobody has enough money; tomorrow seems as bleak as today; nothing is for keeps, except the beautiful, if severe, landscapes, which dwarf the human figures.
The director, Allison Anders, too often resorts to visual banalities,particularly as she poses her extremely handsome cast against "found" objets d'art of the American road which she celebrates a bit too preciously: peeling neon No-Tell Motel signs, Laundromat windows with backward printing, seedy little dives, glistening drive-ins beaming radiation into the cold desert night air. Too often the film looks like an AC-DC album cover from 10 years ago.
On the other hand, the performances are all first rate. The storycenters on Nora (Brooke Adams), a waitress at the Pull Off ** Plaza Truck Stop, and her two daughters Trudi (Ione Skye) and Shade (Fairuza Balk, once a Dorothy in a Disney-sponsored return to Oz.)
Shade, the point-of-view character and narrator, wakes up one morning and discovers that she's not in Oz, and she's certainly not in the Elvia Rivero films which she obsessively watches in a Spanish-language movie theater, with their inflated notions of romance and passions; she's at a truck stop off the interstate and that seems to be American culture and all hope for the future racing by on the highway. Everywhere she looks is despair: her mother doesn't have a boyfriend, and her big sister has too many boyfriends. She herself is undecided as to her future with boyfriends.
Without any particular sense of urgency, the movie wanders through these three lives, playing them off against each other. Imagine an Anne Tyler novel set in a New Mexico truck stop and you get the picture: each character is freshly imagined and ultimately reveals some small amount of grace or decency.
It's full of small beautiful surprises: a young Hispanic-American turns out to treasure his deaf mother, who dances barefoot on the floor, feeling the vibrations of the movie; poor old Dad (James Brolin) turns up, and he's no hero but a decent if feckless guy; a man who's courted, impregnated and then seemingly abandoned Trudi had an appointment in Samarra that kept him away from her; Hamlet, the Romantic Satellite Dish entrepreneur, has a broad streak of decency.
The movie's final message is upbeat and touching: that if we all hang together, we may not hang separately.
'Gas Food Lodging'
Starring Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk
Directed by Allison Anders
Released by I.R.S. Releasing