Filmed in Anderson, Texas, by Cherry Alley Productions in association with Finnegan-Pinchuk Co. Executive producers, Goldie Hawn, Teri Schwartz, Anthea Sylbert, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk; producer, Amanda DiGiulio; director, Hawn; writer, Kerry Kennedy; director of photography, Ric Waite; theme, Dave Grusin; score, Steve Porcaro; First-time helmer Goldie Hawn embodiesa surprising maturity and assurance directing this tearjerker set amid the early ’60s paranoia manufactured by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing restlessness of the Civil Rights Movement. Film is sensitively wrought, if sometimes simplistic and heavy-handed, with Hawn showing a firm grasp of the familial ties that bind — and blind.
The director also benefits in “Hope” from some terrific acting support via principals Jena Malone, Christine Lahti, Jeffrey D. Sams, J. T. Walsh and Catherine O’Hara. All are at the top of their game, and it’s a tribute to Hawn that they are. Not even the manipulative notes struck by Kerry Kennedy’s teleplay derail what is at its core a highly passionate piece of filmmaking.
Story opens in 1962 as JFK and Khruschev are locked in their tense war of nuclear wills, with a headstrong 12-year-old lass named Lilly Kate Burns (Malone , so good in “Bastard Out of Carolina”) who says “Hell’s bells!” when she’s nervous and has her sights set on a career in dance. She’s struggling to come to grips with her strangulating, racist smalltown Southern surroundings, pining for the miracle that will deposit her elsewhere. Anywhere would be fine.
In the meantime, loquacious Lilly lives a downbeat existence with her vegetative stroke-victim mother (Mary Ellen Trainor), her hate-consumed Uncle Ray (Walsh) and her beaten-down-by-life Aunt Emma (wonderful work from Lahti). On the periphery are Lilly’s alcoholic dance teacher Muriel (Catherine O’Hara) and a young black minister, Jediah Walker (Sams), whom she befriends.
Hawn takes her sweet time allowing the story to unfold. What starts out as a languid tale of pre-adolescent yearning and human frailty gives way to a racially charged allegory on morality and justice about halfway through after a young black boy dies in a theater fire. Bigot Uncle Ray is charged with wrongful death, since he owns the theater and didn’t bother to outfit it with more than a single door.
Final half-hour bogs down in bathos, complete with improbable epiphanies and overly convenient alliances. But through it all, Hawn keeps the actors on track. Malone in particular has some magical moments with both Trainor and Lee Norris as Lilly’s oddball, bleach-haired young kindred spirit Billy.
The backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and imminent annihilation is — despite Kennedy’s attempts to make it a central focus — largely incidental. And it clashes with the true essence of “Hope”: that is, the divisiveness of racism and wielding of truth as a weapon. Film is blessed with a visually stirring texture, however, that does manage to evoke an affecting mood.
Director of photography Ric Waite does a superior job of making Anderson, Texas look at once beautiful and foreboding. Other tech credits are all quite sharp.
But this is the director’s movie. And for her first time out, Hawn displays an impressive knack for imagery, and for allowing her cast the freedom to shine.