A string of scenes in search of a movie, Katrina Holden Bronson’s debut feature “Daltry Calhoun” should be several grades better. The excessive strain to capture Southern quirks and literary nuggets can be felt from here to the Mason-Dixon Line in this story of a precocious, musically gifted girl thrown together with her long-absent father, a sod tycoon on the verge of going bust. Distinguished as the last Miramax production to premiere while Bob and Harvey Weinstein were technically still in charge, pic was unloaded on 13 screens Sept. 23 for a disastrous $566 per screen average, and will quickly flee to vid turf.
Keen credit-watchers will notice Quentin Tarantino serves as executive producer, with his latest of several shingles — L. Driver Prods. (a tip of the cap to Darryl Hannah’s “Kill Bill” assassin)–holding a prime company credit. It would be wrong, though, to assume “Daltry” is touched by Tarantino’s cinema of post-modern genre reworkings. The only remote connection lies in a few culturally aware monologues and dialogues, and a diverse soundtrack of selected songs (from Johnny Cash to Serge Gainsbourg) that overwhelms a highly troubled narrative.
Flashback set 14 years past is unnecessary, and exposes some of the script’s key weaknesses. Daltry (Johnny Knoxville), living in sin with teenaged May (Elizabeth Banks) and baby June in Appalachia, is summarily sent packing by May’s mom (Beth Grant). May pleads for Daltry to stay and yet doesn’t search for him in the ensuing years.
However, now that she’s dying of a bizarrely unnamed disease, May traces Daltry to Ducktown, Tenn., home to his lucrative business providing high-quality sod to golf courses.
May introduces Daltry to 14-year-old June (Sophie Traub), but insists that he not tell the girl that he is her father. The film is thus wound in useless knots before the family reunion barely begins, and it is a relief when June, as voice-over narrator, takes command of the story as she encounters the Ducktown locals including illiterate Calhoun Industries caretaker Doyle Earl (David Koechner) and store owner Flora (Juliette Lewis).
June’s observational intelligence, no doubt developed through her bookworm habits (shown in a sweet, brief montage), helps give pic a bit of flair. But since there are a host of scenes that June couldn’t possibly witness, the film’s point of view remains a muddle: Sometimes it is Daltry’s story, and, as much or more often, it is June’s.
Scenes begin and end well enough, yet one gets the impression that other scenes in between are somehow missing, as when June has a fairly charming encounter with Frankie (Kick Gurry), a sod expert from Oz hired by Daltry. Her hormones revved up, June would seem to want to see Frankie again yet his character remains off-screen for so long that when Gurry’s face appears again, it’s a shock.
The actors rarely seem to connect with one another, betraying the lack of a strong directorial hand. Already at this early stage in his career, Knoxville is falling back on his own shtick, and Lewis finds little to play with as a sex-starved gal; the pair have a semi-sex scene together that’s very oddly paced.
With good reason, Banks never has a grip on her hopelessly written role, and it seems unfair to pile the emotional and thematic weight on young Traub’s game shoulders.
Matthew Irving’s widescreen lensing is inconsistent, ranging from merely pretty pictorials of Tennessee exteriors to some unsightly interiors that appear shot with a single key light. Rather than adding an audio texture, the song selection ponderously underlines what’s already on screen.