Surmounting budgetary and digital limitations with good scripting and acting, "What Alice Found" is a solid character piece that deftly probes the complicity of both sides in a morally dubious relationship. Writer-director A. Dean Bell's second feature is about a naive New England girl taken in by a friendly older couple and turned into a prostitute.

Surmounting budgetary and digital limitations with good scripting and acting, “What Alice Found” is a solid character piece that deftly probes the complicity of both sides in a morally dubious relationship. Writer-director A. Dean Bell’s second feature, about a naive New England girl taken in by a friendly older couple and turned into a prostitute practically before she realizes what’s happening, is by turns disarmingly amusing and dramatically blunt. Despite visual roughness, pic possesses narrative contact points that will emotionally draw auds, particularly women, spelling some small potential in specialized release and cable showings down the line.

Grubby visual format is off-putting for the first 10-15 minutes, but finally comes to feel like a good fit with the dreary world of trailer homes, truck stops and undifferentiated highways the picture inhabits once the title character is set on her path.

Fatherless, at odds with her mother and grasping for a way to escape her dead-end supermarket job, twentyish Alice (Emily Grace) decamps in her rickety Ford Escort from small-town New Hampshire for Florida, where her best friend is about to begin studying marine biology, a pursuit Alice naively imagines she can take up as well. In all respects, Alice is utterly commonplace: She’s neither attractive nor unattractive, and seems entirely unformed morally, ethically and intellectually. She’s human clay, ready to be shaped by experience.

Taking Alice in hand is the middle-aged Sandra (Judith Ivey) who, with older army vet Bill (Bill Raymond), cruises the interstates in a comfy recreational vehicle. Coming to the young lady’s rescue when her car gives out early in her trip, the affable couple offers to drive Alice to Florida. A warm and friendly Southerner who calls Alice “hon” from the outset and is full of reassuring down-home wisdom and opinion, Sandra couldn’t be easier to relax with and talk to, with the added benefit to Alice of being everything her own mother isn’t. Or so it seems.

Having casually inquired to make sure Alice is no virgin, Sandra plays the generous host by buying her a sexy dress and getting her hair done. After refusing the overtures of a young man along the road, Alice sees the guy’s father emerging from Sandra’s bedroom. Thereupon follows Sandra’s pragmatic defense of the oldest profession, along with the suggestion that Alice could make quite a bit of money easing the load of long-haul big riggers. “It’s as easy as falling off a log,” Sandra insists.

So Alice becomes a full-fledged “lot lizard,” or truck stop tramp, turning half-hour tricks for $200 and giving her mom-and-pop pimps a quarter of the fee. Unfortunately, Alice has come to trust Sandra so much that she stupidly agrees to the older woman’s insistence on stashing her earnings in a safe, which from an audience p.o.v. pretty much seals the deal that things will not end well.

Bell, however, doesn’t allow the story to fall prey to this and other melodramatic devices. Just as Sandra does not emerge simplistically as a manipulative villain, neither is Alice portrayed as a poor little victim who bears no responsibility for what happens to her. A strong sense of the way moral compromises, personal vulnerabilities, irrational urges and life circumstances can get all muddled up together informs this intelligently ambiguous tale.

Crucial to this accomplishment are the two leading performances. Ivey is the “star” with the big showy part, but despite the ripe opportunity for “Ya-Ya Sisterhood”-style flouncing and brazen scene-stealing, the stage vet is all the more effective for underplaying every aspect of Sandra, from her over-the-hill sexiness to her underlying disappointment with life. It’s a wonderfully entertaining turn that goes considerably deeper than theatrical flourishes.

Speaking with a broad working-class New England accent, Grace, in her film debut, begins with a character who’s a formless blob with no road smarts and effectively takes Alice to a place where she’s at least able to stand up for herself. Bell smartly doesn’t make the character undergo extreme change over a short period of time, content to more realistically suggest a slight awakening — the opening of the character’s eyes to the world.

Tech aspects are minimal, which is artistically apt but probably will keep the film on the edge of commercial acceptance. Soundtrack is dominated by girl pop.

Bell’s previous feature was the spoofy “Backfire,” a Robert Mitchum starrer that went straight to video in 1995. Producer-cinematographer Richard Connors has a directorial credit to his name as well, the Gothic 1989 study of pyromania and mental illness, “Eden Is Burning.”

What Alice Found

Production

A Factory Films presentation in association with Highland Entertainment. Produced by Richard Connors. Executive producers, Don Wells, J.C. Chmiel. Directed, written by A. Dean Bell.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Richard Connors; co-camera, Wyche Stublefield, Edwin Martinez; editor, Chris Houghton; art director, Bryce "Paul Mama" Williams; costume designer, Michelle Teague; sound, Jeff Pullman, Irin Strauss; line producer, Matt Campbell; associate producer, Mie Handy; casting, Kristine Bulakowski. Reviewed at Sunset Screening Room, L.A., Jan. 7, 2003. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Dramatic Competition.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Sandra - Judith Ivey Bill - Bill Raymond Alice - Emily Grace Sally - Jane Lincoln Taylor Sam - Justin Parkinson Alice's boyfriend - Michael C. Maronna Julie - Katheryn Winnick Rough Trucker - David Rose Trooper - John Knox Danny - Tim Hayes Alex - Lucas Papaelias Lot Trucker - Clint Jordan

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