“Tollbooth” is a strong first film for director Salome Breziner. Odder than the film’s off-kilter depiction of a romantic triangle’s roadside life and their entanglement with murder and money laundering is the film’s debut in the Cannes market instead of the fest, where it would have fit nicely. Clearly not for every taste, it should garner lots of talk about newcomer Breziner and do decent biz on the international art-film circuit.
Pic is determinedly quirky, atmospheric and cut from the same cloth as David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” CBS’ series “Northern Exposure” and the dysfunctional Americana of Lasse Hallstrom’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” with a dash of Wim Wenders’ scenic explorations and Samuel Beckett’s absurdist minimalism.
The “Tollbooth” of the title is the center of the universe for young lovers Jack (Lenny Von Dohlen) and Doris (Fairuza Balk). On a funky stretch of highway in the Florida keys, Jack mans the tollbooth, collecting fares and dreaming of becoming a cop and moving to Miami with Doris, his high school sweetheart.
Doris pumps gas down the road at the Gator Gas fuel depot, when she’s not trysting with bait salesman Dash (Will Patton) and daydreaming about the return of her long-lost father, Leon (Seymour Cassel), and caring for her chronically depressed mother, Lillian (Louise Fletcher).
Film’s modest twists and turns come courtesy of Leon’s return, and a slim subplot involving the tollbooth’s new collector, Vic (James Wilder), whose shady business is drawing the attention of the state police.
What distinguishes the film is not its story. And it’s certainly not the off-the-wall theatrics of vet players like Patton, Cassel and Fletcher, who deserve roles beyond the cartoon oddballs that writer/director Breziner serves up.
The charm of the two leads and Breziner’s ability to invent a wholly contained world of fantasy and screwy logic carries pic past the thin plot. Balk fully lives up to the promise she demonstrated in Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” (where she also hung out by the side of the American highway). Her Doris is actually the straightest character in the film, and thoughthe role could have lapsed into whininess, Balk draws the viewer into Doris’ dilemma with conviction and compassion.
Viewers may never connect viscerally to characters that are closer to film-student conceits than flesh-and-blood people, but they won’t lose interest. The assured, imaginative lensing keeps the landscape alive and full of visual surprises and slyly composed treats.
While owing a debt to filmmakers who have preceded her, Breziner also has an original vision and voice and an ability to bring emotional resonance to her cinematic flights of fancy.