Tuscaloosa @ Nashville Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival Coverage via Jason Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
The lead actor in Phillip Harder’s Tuscaloosa is a young man by the name of Devon Bostick. He’s rail-thin, his head seemingly large for his body, with a mop of jet-black hair thereupon; he’s physically reminiscent of young Keanu Reeves, or, for those of you with truly long memories, Darren E. Burrows (you know, Ed from Northern Exposure). He looks every bit the part of an affable, harmless goofball.
Which is exactly what he’s playing in Tuscaloosa, and it begins to grow tiresome, until you realize that the film works because his character is an affable, harmless goofball, until he isn’t, which is in fact the narrative arc of the whole thing. Bostick plays Billy, a young man working in the titular Alabama town in 1972 at a mental institution run by his father (Tate Donovan, playing a by-the-numbers version of The Stern Dad). Billy could have higher aspirations—his father certainly pushes him towards them, specifically towards writing for the local newspaper—but Billy is content to work as a groundskeeper at the mental hospital. He mows the lawn, he wears sunglasses constantly (even in his father’s office, which annoys the father to no end), and he does little else—he’s at work, but we frequently see him literally taking naps on the grounds. With the benefit of hindsight, he’s the latest in a series of Drifting Young Men, on a par with Benjamin Braddock and Lloyd Dobler.
Like those esteemed gents, what finally sets Billy on a path is the love of a good woman, despite the slight snag that the woman in question, Virginia (Natalia Dyer), is a patient at the institution—a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who may be literally manic. She convinces Billy to help her leave the grounds of the hospital on a regular basis. He takes her fishing, he takes her to the barbecue joint run by his Nigel (Merchant Davis), his closest friend since childhood. He asks her about the scars on her ankles; she doesn’t answer, but we see a flashback of hers to an operating theatre in which she is fully conscious, and bound to the table. We will, of course, learn in due course what was happening, and it changes our understanding of Virginia—and Billy’s understanding of her as well.
As Billy’s understanding of Virginia begins to change, his understanding of Nigel begins
to change as well. We know, again through flashbacks, that Billy and Nigel have been friends since 1953, when their mothers drove away from Tuscaloosa, but never got where they were going; their car exploded, as was prone to happen in 1950s Alabama to cars containing both black and white people. Where they were going (and, really, whether or not they ever made it) is never clarified. It’s enough to know that they were fleeing Tuscaloosa to escape racism, which still exists in 1972 Tuscaloosa. Billy, however, is more or less oblivious to it, and Nigel, suffice to say, can’t afford to be oblivious to it, especially after he befriends a radical activist (YG—that’s the actor’s name) who wants to start taking the fight to the oppressors. If that includes throwing Molotov cocktails at the police station, so be it. If one of the regulars at the illicit poker games played at the station happens to be Billy’s father, so be it.
Billy, again like Messrs Braddock and Dobler, has decisions to make, mainly decisions about which side he’s on. Does he help Virginia escape the hospital for good? Does he align himself with Nigel and his radical friends? Does he abandon both ideas in favor of appealing to his father? Furthermore, does Virginia have a reason to escape, is she validly a mental patient? Will Nigel and his radicalized friends still have a place for Billy? One of those questions is given a resolute answer; the other, less so. In fact, while the direction Billy goes is heavily implied, it’s not crystal-clear at the film’s end.
Another question that’s not easily answered: where this film is concerned, is there any there there? I draw the comparison to Braddock/Dobler because Tuscaloosa is of a piece with both films—the young aimless man finds true love, and it posits him against dad/adulthood/The Man/etc. If there’s a difference, it’s that Billy’s path isn’t clear, isn’t made clear; in fact, we’re not even sure at the end if Billy has really had the awakening his cinematic predecessors had.
It’s not a bad film; if it’s paired with the right distributor, it should be a sleeper hit. Clayton Condit’s editing balances all the storylines, past and present, and cinematographer Theo Stanley succeeds at telegraphing the archetypes occupied by each character, to say nothing of creating the illusion of summer in Alabama in 1972–a tall order, considering that the film was shot in 2018. In Autumn. In Minnesota. My prediction is that this film will be discovered by 17-year-olds, the kind who have started writing poetry, copiously smoking, and seeing the brilliance of (enter your favorite singer-songwriter here) to a degree (of course) that no one else does, man. They still make 17-year-olds like that, right? Full disclosure, it’s how old I was when Say Anything was released. It spoke to me, and I think Tuscaloosa will speak to today’s romantic/Romantic teens—at least until they’ve seen more movies.