Screen newcomer Marisa Ryan gives such a riveting performance in the romantic comedy "Love Always" that she single-handedly holds together a film that's too episodic and fragmented. Still, theatrical prospects are good for a charming, technically accomplished road movie concerning a young woman torn between making an emotional commitment and living an adventurous life.

Screen newcomer Marisa Ryan gives such a riveting performance in the romantic comedy “Love Always” that she single-handedly holds together a film that’s too episodic and fragmented. Still, theatrical prospects are good for a charming, technically accomplished road movie concerning a young woman torn between making an emotional commitment and living an adventurous life.

Twenty-two-year-old Julia (Ryan), trying to make a living as an actress, lives in San Diego with her best friend, Mary Ellen (Moon Zappa), and the latter’sb.f., Sean (James Victor). A postcard from Julia’s old beau, Mark (Michael Reilly Burke), changes things dramatically, as Mark not only professes love but also proposes marriage now that he holds a steady job as a lawyer. There’s not much to hold Julia back: Her theater auditions usually result in failure, and, about to tie the knot, Mary Ellen and Sean are leaving for Boston. Julia decides to hit the road for Spokane, where Mark lives. From there on, the film assumes the shape of a whimsical road comedy, one full of eccentric characters and bizarre encounters.

Julia’s first ride is offered by James (Doug Hutchinson), a speed freak who gives Julia an immense headache with his nonstop talk until he abandons her at a rest stop, when he’s spotted by the police. After spending the night all alone at this stop, Julia is awakened by a kind, middle-aged woman, Stephanie (Beth Grant), who offers her a ride to a small town outside Seattle. Stephanie is on her way to a dairy farm to deliver three huge ceramic cows for display. When Julia inadvertently breaks one of the cows, she’s asked to drive back to Vegas to pick up the replacement.

The logic of the narrative is clear: Julia needs to be delayed in order to give her time to rethink what she’s doing. In one of the film’s highlights, the once-again stranded Julia gets a ride to Boston (to be Mary Ellen’s maid of honor) by a van full of women who turn out to be the Virgin Sluts, her favorite band. Along with idiosyncratically crazy detours, there’s also a quietly romantic interlude with David (Tracy Fraim), a sensitive man who offers her shelter and his arms for the night.

Ending may be a downer for a comedy that’s energetic and boisterous, but it rings absolutely true. It also highlights some important reversals in gender conventions: Men in the film are more stable and willing to commit than women.

Making an impressive directorial debut, Jude Pauline Eberhard, who also co-wrote the script (with novelist Sharlene Baker) understands that Julia’s journey is far more significant than her quest or ultimate destination. But Eberhard’s greatest achievement is the captivating work she has coaxed out of lead actress Ryan, who’s bound to have a bright future in Hollywood. The weight of the film falls upon Ryan’s shoulders, and she carries it marvelously, moving the yarn along while juggling doubts, hopes and apprehensions that many young women will recognize and relate to.

Tech credits are excellent, particularly sharp lensing by Xavier Perez Grobet (who’s assisted Paul Verhoeven and Tony Scott) and deft editing by Joel Goodman, which helps the film seem less disjointed than it is. Among other things, “Love Always” bears the distinction of providing a most authentic answer to an often-asked question in American movies, “What do women want?”

Love Always

Production

A Cinewest production. Produced by Isaac Artenstein. Executive producers, Ken Branson, Coop Cooprider. Directed by Jude Pauline Eberhard. Screenplay, Eberhard, Sharlene Baker, based on Baker's novel "Finding Signs."

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Xavier Perez Grobet; editor, Joel Goodman; music, Jaime Valle, Anton Sanko; production design , Mauricio de Aguinaco; art direction, Eugenio Caballero; costume design, Judi Sarafian; sound (Dolby), Kevin Hyde; casting, Doreen Lane. Reviewed at Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Nov. 9, l996. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Julia - Marisa Ryan
Mary Ellen - Moon Zappa
Sean - James Victor
Mark - Michael Reilly Burke
James - Doug Hutchinson
Stephanie - Beth Grant
David - Tracy Fraim
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