An old-fashioned, appealingly sentimental drama about homefront life during WWII, “Fort McCoy” could resonate with older ticketbuyers during limited runs in carefully targeted theatrical engagements. It’s clearly a labor of love for scripter, co-director and co-star Kate Connor, who based her screenplay on real-life events involving her mother and grandparents. But this handsomely crafted indie likely won’t reach far below the 40-plus demographic until it launches homevid and cable campaigns.
Pic begins in May 1944, as German-American barber Frank Stirn (Eric Stoltz) arrives with his family at the eponymous Wisconsin military base to do his bit for the war effort. Specifically, Frank volunteers to provide tonsorial services for G.I.’s stationed at Fort McCoy — and for German and Japanese prisoners of war held on the camp grounds.
While Frank’s wife, Ruby (ably played by Connor), works as a base switchboard operator, his 18-year-old sister-in-law, Anna (Lyndsy Fonseca), conveniently finds a clerical job that enables her to meet and fall for Sam (Andy Hirsch), a boyishly handsome soldier haunted by his recent experiences during the Battle of Monte Cassino.
For Gertie (Gara Lonning) and Lester (Marty Backstrand), Frank and Ruby’s young children, life at Fort McCoy is for the most part an idyllic adventure, even with hundreds of POWs nearby on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Indeed, Gertie manages to transcend the language barrier while reaching out, literally and figuratively, to a barely adolescent German soldier (Josh Zabel). But Ruby is never entirely comfortable in her new surroundings, and she’s downright terrified when one prisoner appears at her window and another ventures dangerously closer.
Connor and co-director Michael Worth allow “Fort McCoy” to proceed at an unhurried pace, giving Stoltz ample opportunity to subtly convey undercurrents of guilt and anger percolating beneath his character’s affable exterior. Frank was classified 4-F because of a heart murmur, and the pic periodically hints that he may feel less like a man because of his lucky break.
The filmmakers also take their time while developing the romance between Anna and Sam, a relationship only temporarily impeded by religious differences (she’s Catholic, he’s Jewish) and Sam’s battlefield flashbacks. Fonseca and Hirsch give winning performances as the young lovers, characters based on Connor’s great-aunt and great-uncle.
Unfortunately, other supporting characters and a few subplots seem short-shrifted, leaving one to wonder whether “Fort McCoy” might have been more effectively developed as a limited-run TV series. Some auds actually may feel cheated by the paltry amount of screentime given to Seymour Cassel as an avuncular Catholic priest and Camrym Manheim as Anna’s hearty co-worker.
Tech values, including Neil Lisk’s attractive lensing and Dana Niu’s lush musical score, notably enhance the overall period flavor. It also helps that pic was partially filmed in preserved barracks and buildings at the actual Fort McCoy, which remains operational as a U.S. military base.