Walter Pruitt Taylor-Vince

Walter Pruitt Taylor-Vince

Eric Simon Baker-Denny

Samantha Jacqueline McKenzie

Alex Kathryne Erbe

Hat James Gammons

Voice of Henry Sam Robards

With: Anne Dake, Hollis McCarthy.

Save some slick tech work, there’s nothing too remarkable about “Love From Ground Zero,” an indie road movie that tries to be touching and heartfelt but ends up being sappy and predictable. Film’s noble ambition to dramatize the grieving process of three strangers by sending them on a cross-country trip is done in by the American road cliches that guide its visuals, dialogue and plot. While a theatrical life seems unlikely, pic is polished and well-intentioned enough to get attention from the artier cable nets.

Setup feels contrived and all too familiar: Three strangers meet at the Gotham funeral of Henry, a mutual friend, and decide to drive to Montana to dispose of his ashes. Samantha (Jacqueline McKenzie), Henry’s girlfriend, is a sassy Southerner; Eric (Simon Baker-Denny), his college buddy, is a groundless drifter; and Walter (Pruitt Taylor-Vince), Henry’s friend from childhood, is a white-collar bureaucrat who has never done an extemporaneous thing in his life. As guideposts for their journey, they use a stack of postcards that Henry sent his parents during his first trip across the country. (Pic derives its title from the penultimate stop, the South Dakota town where the government once housed the M-10.)

Perhaps depth is too lofty an expectation for a film that derives its words of wisdom from the back of roadside postcards. Indeed, the narration that accompanies the trio’s trip west – a collection of aphorisms about love, freedom , the road, etc., delivered in voiceover by dead Henry himself (Sam Robards) – would be more at home on T-shirts or mugs.

As they travel westward, Samantha and Walter have a fling, Eric has an unsatisfying tryst with a roadside waitress, and Samantha and Eric get into a fight. Soon after, Eric leaves the other two and sets out hitchhiking. Of course , they reunite.

You feel every mile of their trip: by the time they reach their destination, it’s if they’ve driven to Nome, Alaska, and not Missoula, Mont. There they meet Alex (Kathryne Erbe), former flame of Eric. Before the three wanderers reach the breathtaking vista from which they scatter Henry’s ashes, there is a major revelation as to the father of Alex’s child, one that the audience sees coming the moment the tike is introduced.

Writer-director Grynberg deserves credit for trying to make a road film that aims for emotional resonance rather than goofy comedy. “Ground Zero” bears kinship to Kerouac’s “On the Road” in its view of the trip across America as metaphor for self-discovery. But while that book flowed to the jazzy rhythms of the bebop era, this film seems timed out by metronome.

Of the three principals, Taylor-Vince does the best work, showing the various stages of Walter’s grieving without overdoing it. James Dean look-alike Baker-Denny has a sleepy ease in front of the camera that should serve him well in future feature work. As a former encyclopedia salesman who briefly joins the caravan, gravel-voiced character actor James Gammons has an excellent 10 minutes: His character, a man who late in life is owning up to his faults, is the most genuine thing in the film.

Tech credits, including Mauro Fiore’s glossy camerawork, are quite strong. Sandra Grass’ sets for a NASA-themed roadside motel and Alex’s funky post-college home would fit well in a more pricey pic. But in some ways, all this slickness works against “Love From Ground Zero”: With its miles and miles of cliches and shots of waving corn fields, pic ends up feeling more like an extended credit-card commercial than a feature film.

Love from Ground Zero

(DRAMA)

Production

A Sandbox Films production. Produced by Aaron Cohen, Stephen Grynberg. Co-producers, Patricia Kruijer, Chris Beckman. Directed, written by Stephen Grynberg.

Crew

Camera (color), Mauro Fiore; editors, Melody London, Affonso Goncalves; music, John McEuen; production designer, Sandra Grass; associate producer, Lora Zuckerman; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival, Oct. 17, 1998. Running time: 102 MIN.
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