Residual 1960s activism gets a workout in “Emma and Elvis,” first narrative feature by Julia Reichert, co-director of the acclaimed leftist dox “Seeing Red” and “Union Maids.” With a few fest dates and limited theatrical runs in Ohio behind it, pic is a decent bet for market-by-market nurturing in college towns and communities open to alternative programming.
Alice (Kathryn Walker) is a middle-aged, counter-cultural documentary filmmaker in Dayton, Ohio, who has been working on a docu about the 1960s for so long that it’s become a joke, especially to her husband Ben.
No one can figure out why she doesn’t get the ’60s out of her system, already , but Alice is clearly obsessed, and troubled by the events of 1989, notably Tiananmen Square and the suicide of Abbie Hoffman.
Yanking her out of her cloistered mental world is Eddie (Jason Duchin), a 24 -year-old videomaker for a local public access cable outlet. Angry and arrogant upon meeting her, he is initially highly derisive of Alice and her generation for having copped out and given him such a lousy world to live, snapping, “You guys were supposed to be making a revolution, right? Well, why did you quit?”
Nevertheless, these two misfits’ mutual discontent draws them together in a strange way, and Alice begins hanging around the cable TV station, where she finds political activists whose passion reminds her a lot of her radical days. The issues have changed, with AIDS now the leading concern, but Alice finds in these kids a stimulating embodiment of the attitude, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
While engaging herself in the station’s effort to fight off the prudish regulators who would censor its programs’ content, Alice also enters into a very tentative romance with Eddie.
This development borders on the dramatically unbelievable, but fortunately it isn’t pushed very far and the whole experience at least helps her get her documentary finished.
In an earnest, righteous, basically likable way, pic draws a connection and distinction between the relative brands of political activism of the 1960s and today.
With humor that is no doubt somewhat self-directed, Reichert also draws a wry contrast between the sort of self-absorbed docu filmmaker who labors over a project for years and the shoot-from-the-hip video generation whose efforts are viewable instantaneously for immediate impact.
At the same time, Reichert shows her non-fiction, polemical roots in the way she hits her subject directly on the head, without nuance or subtlety.
As a storyteller, she has yet to be introduced to such essential devices as subtext, oblique dialogue, dramatic weaving and counterpoint. But in this instance, she is so clearly working out many of the same problems faced by Alice that her good intentions count for a good deal, inspiring a generous reaction to her endeavor.
Acting is OK, and same can be said for the plain, straightforward production values. Title refers to the leads’ mutual heroes, with Alice calling herself Emma Goldman and Eddie adopting the moniker Elvis Costello.