Suzy Amis’ superlative performance dominates every frame of “The Ballad of Little Jo,” an earnest drama about a woman who disguises herself as a man to survive hardship in the Old West. But this well-intentioned, revisionist frontier saga is too solemn and dramatically unexciting to generate wide appeal beyond a core of female viewers and ardent followers of indie pics.
Inspired by a true story, writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s fascinating story is set in 1866, during the Gold Rush. Josephine Monaghan (Amis) is a wealthy woman from the East, cast out by her family after giving birth out of wedlock.
Heading West, she meets Hollander (Rene Auberjonois), a peddler who initially befriends her, but then shows contempt and sexually harasses her. Realizing her only chance for freedom in the West is as a man, Josephine proceeds to cut her long hair, scar her face, put on trousers — and change her name to Little Jo.
She begins her new life in Ruby City, a frontier mining outpost populated by fortune-seeking adventurers. Miraculously, she is accepted as a man by everyone, including macho Percy Corcoran (Ian McKellen), who provides practical advice, and Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins) who instructs her in sheepherding. Before long, she learns how to mine, hunt, and manage a self-sufficient existence.
Jo’s solitary life changes after she saves Tinman Wong (David Chung), an Asian outcast, from lynching. In an intriguing role reversal, Wong is assigned to cook, mend and take care of her needs, while she functions as the breadwinner. However, once he discovers her true identity, an affair ensues and they secretly set up house.
Focusing on the issue of sexual politics, scripter-helmer Greenwald, whose previous pics were “Home Remedy” and the low-budget noir “The Kill Off,” brings a contemporary feminist vision to the frontier saga. Her perspective is boldly novel, but despite her efforts to demystify the Old West, Greenwald ends up mythologizing her heroine as a symbol of pioneering endurance.
Filmed in an understated style, “Ballad” unfolds as an illustrated anthropological essay, chronicling in extreme detail life in the West. In its ambience and matter-of-fact treatment, pic recalls Richard Pearce’s 1979 “Heartland,” another honorable tribute to the frontier’s courageous women.
Regrettably, despite the film’s two-hour length, important issues remain unexplored, such as Jo’s maternal feelings for her illegitimate son whom she never sees. Greenwald also fails to capture Jo’s inner torment and struggle in maintaining her disguisedidentity. Jo’s relationship with Wong is sketchily depicted, and same could be said of the schematic conflict with the wealthy cattlemen who want to buy her land.
Greenwald is so committed to a feminist agenda that her treatment leaves out a good deal of the humor and suspense inherent in the story. For instance, the sequence in which a young woman (Heather Graham) thinks she’s found the ideal husband in Jo is full of droll possibilities that are unfulfilled.
Fortunately, Greenwald’s casting and direction of the actors are more successful. Bo Hopkins is cast against type as a sensitive rancher who helps Jo. Shakespearean actor McKellen plays a miner who teaches Jo the meaning of manhood , but then reveals his own sexist tendencies. Auberjonois is also fine as the peddler who betrays the young Josephine.
Ultimately, what makes “The Ballad of Little Jo” worthy is Amis’ full-bodied performance in what may be her most challenging role to date. Always believable, Amis never makes a false move.
Handsomely lensed by Declan Quinn in southern Montana, pic captures both the beauty and harshness of the vast uninhabited landscape and the indomitable spirit of one fearless woman.