With a twist of irony, the title of “Miss Ohio” implies that Natalie is something special, when in fact she was merely third runner-up for the Teen Miss Ohio contest some years earlier. It’s been downhill since, as the film follows Natalie from her passionless marriage through a sex- and drug-fueled party phase to her ultimate self-discovery in the church. Pic unfolds not through a conventional series of scenes, but rather as a long, hypnotic montage, an intriguing artistic choice in this super-indie Dances With Films gem that depends on further fest love to keep it from getting lost in the crowd.
As played by Samantha Simon, Natalie may not be a particularly remarkable character, but her experience speaks to the state of contemporary relationships and values. She’s passively searching for something, hoping some external person or force will guide her and give her life meaning. When the film opens, she’s already married to an attractive enough Wall Street type, but the first shot (which finds Natalie staring off into space as her distracted husband takes his conjugal pleasures atop her) rather crudely reveals their lack of connection.
Director Gregory Fitzsimmons, making his feature debut, could have taken the caustic Bret Easton Ellis approach with such a character, but instead sympathetically follows his apathetic heroine’s lonely routine as she idly leafs through ladies’ mags and wanders the city in a soft-focus daze — a depiction of detached Gotham life not unlike that seen in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience.” Without any arguments or harsh words, we see Natalie signing her divorce papers, any fighting lost in the seams of the film’s elliptical style, paved over by the music-box sound of Keegan DeWitt’s mostly piano score.
The impression is one of numb existence: Natalie seldom speaks. She observes the world through blank eyes or from behind big Jackie-O sunglasses, like a young child who doesn’t fully understand all the adult commotion around her. After retreating to her hometown, Chicago, she lets loose, turning to her bible — American Woman magazine — for tips on how to seduce a minor local celebrity (Charlie Farrell), only to revert to her naive Barbie-and-Ken fantasies the following morning.
Perhaps what makes Natalie such an intriguing protagonist is that she possesses no talents to speak of. She is clearly ambitious; in contrast with the modest life her parents enjoy back in Illinois, her New York marriage was a clear step up, and she always seems to be scouting for opportunities that could deliver the fabulous experiences depicted in her favorite magazines. But as the film advances, a certain sensitivity of character emerges.
The first half features little dialogue, leaving audiences to intuit Natalie’s feelings and intentions. But after a series of bad decisions in Chicago, she turns to a local church, taking comfort in the fresh set of guidelines religion provides. Few pics have the courage to tackle this relatively common aspect of modern life, but Fitzsimmons handles it in an interesting way, observing the positive messages and sense of community Natalie finds there.
Salvation isn’t so simple, however, and “Miss Ohio” also acknowledges certain limits to what religion can offer. In these clumsy final scenes, the church isn’t so much the answer for Natalie as it is a catalyst that empowers her to identify and embrace her true self. But Natalie’s revelation follows the earlier free-form narrative a bit too easily, patly wrapping up a portrait that seemed stronger in its earlier sense of ambiguity.