Like the heroine of a silent movie melodrama, or any number of Lars von Trier opuses, the title character in “Katie Says Goodbye” suffers more than her share of tragic events. But even if first-time writer-director Wayne Roberts is sympathetic to the plight he’s chosen for the protagonist, his film never burrows deep enough under her skin to make the string of miserable scenarios connect in a meaningful way.
A waitress at a truck stop in a tiny Arizona town, Katie is played by Olivia Cooke with something between the glamour of those silent era sirens and the studied naturalism of a contemporary indie It girl. So moving as “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s” doomed high schooler and so witty and vibrant in her best moments on TV’s “Bates Motel,” Cooke is a natural at holding the camera, and she’s on screen nearly every scene here in what could have been a star-making role. Unfortunately, the oddly conceived character would be an impossible challenge for even the most seasoned veterans.
An irrepressible optimist and incurable romantic, Katie thinks nothing of giving almost every penny she makes to her alcoholic layabout mother (Mireille Enos), and cheerfully prostituting herself on the side with local men to save up a hidden stash of cash for her dream of relocating to San Francisco. Katie believes she’s found just the right guy to escape with when she meets Bruno (Christopher Abbott), a monosyllabic ex-con working as a mechanic at a small auto shop near the diner.
Katie and Bruno hit it off so well she even agrees to stop the whole sex for money sidejob — a decision that goes over better with some clients (like the kindly trucker played by Jim Belushi) than others (the scummy married with kids school teacher played by Nate Corddry). One of Katie’s only true friends is her boss, Maybelle (a winning Mary Steenburgen), who offers motherly advice while Katie’s biological mama slinks around making eyes at Bruno.
While she seemingly can’t catch a break, Katie soldiers on with a smile at all times, spouting lines like, “If you look at it in a certain way, life is so amazing.” As the narrative continues to conspire against her, the film starts to feel less like a portrait of resilience and more like some twisted videogame where the misery increases with each level. Bad things happen to good people — we get it. By the time Katie is raped by multiple men (in a sequence that awkwardly pays more attention to her attackers than it does the victim), many viewers will be looking for a reset button.
Although executive produced by the Borderline Films trio of Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond, “Katie Says Goodbye” only suffers by comparison to the character-based insight of the company’s best films (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “James White,” “Christine”), which similarly mine harrowing emotional and psychological terrain with a superior sense of authenticity and artistry.