Review: ‘Blessing’

A heartfelt, well-characterized study of a hemorrhaging Midwestern farm family , "Blessing" remains too safe and predictable in its naturalistic melodrama to stir reaction beyond sympathy and respect. First feature by writer/director Paul Zehrer creates an utterly believable picture of limited horizons and frustrated desires in America's dairyland, but it lacks the dramatic dimensions to draw much of a paying public.

A heartfelt, well-characterized study of a hemorrhaging Midwestern farm family , “Blessing” remains too safe and predictable in its naturalistic melodrama to stir reaction beyond sympathy and respect. First feature by writer/director Paul Zehrer creates an utterly believable picture of limited horizons and frustrated desires in America’s dairyland, but it lacks the dramatic dimensions to draw much of a paying public. PBS seems a much more congenial destination.

A rural Minnesota native who has most recently worked as a documentary film editor in New York, Zehrer at once establishes a strong affinity for his setting and characters, and the anguish he feels for the restricted options and dried-up lives he depicts is well communicated and never in question.

In this perpetually dark, wet and cold corner of southwestern Wisconsin in early winter, the world is composed of two types ofpeople: those old enough to have already let life pass them by and those still waiting for it to happen.

At 23, Randi (Melora Griffis) is past the point of adolescent rebellion and could easily continue forever milking the cows every morning and waitressing in the local roadhouse.

But exerting the strongest hold is her attachment to her 10-year-old brother Clovis (Clovis Siemon), a sprightly kid who desperately needs her as a buffer between him and their parents.

Ornery and uncommunicative when sober and downright cruel and abusive when drunk, Dad (Guy Griffis, Melora’s real father) regularly climbs the silo and spies off into the gray distance, sometimes snapping photos.

Mom (Carlin Glynn) sparks a family crisis by accusing her husband of going up there to spy on the neighbor woman, but otherwise dotes on her cheap religious icons, dreams of winning the lottery and pathetically asks why everyone just can’t get along.

Dad has already pushed his eldest son away from home, and when Randi takes a fancy to amiable milkman and astrologer Lyle (Gareth Williams), it doesn’t take much more of Dad’s meanness to make her want to flee the misery of family life. Simple narrative comes off as both convincing and familiar, as this basic storyline of unbearable familial tensions vs. the intractability of blood ties has been played out countless times before.

What compels the interest is the integrity of the characterizations in both their writing and performance. Not just a farm girl, Randi is very much a product and a symptom of the dysfunctional 1990s, attracted to the basic values of family life but in flight from the intolerable realities of her suffocating parents.

Robustly attractive and with an outgoing nature, Melora Griffis centers the film commendably, believably amplifying the deep conflicts indicated by the script and never seeming preening or theatrical.

Williams is pleasantly appealing as a standard-issue drifter type who rather too pointedly symbolizes Randi’s chance of escape. Glynn catches the mother’s sad futility, and Guy Griffis cuts a ceaselessly menacing figure as the father. Siemon nicely elicits the hope one needs to have for the youngster.

Tech values are modest.

Blessing

Production

A Starr Valley Films production. Produced by Melissa Powell, Paul Zehrer. Executive producer, Christopher A. Cuddihy. Co-executive producer, Mark Bardorf. Directed, written by Zehrer.

Crew

Camera (Duart color), Stephen Kazmierski; editors, Andrew Morreale, Zehrer; music, Joseph S. Debeasi; production design, Steve Rosenzweig; costume design, Janie Bryant; sound, Derek Felska; associate producer, Joseph Marger; assistant director, Peter D. Bove; casting, Sheila Jaffe, Georgianne Walken, Cassandra Han. Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, L.A., Jan. 11, 1994. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Randi - Melora Griffis
Arlene - Carlin Glynn
Jack - Guy Griffis
Clovis - Clovis Siemon
Lyle - Gareth Williams
Fran - Randy Sue Latimer
Snuff - Tom Carey
Early - Frank Taylor
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