There’s a colorful, almost archaic slice of America in which “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” resides; it’s akin to “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” only starker and more physically frightening. Pic should appeal to a small, upscale domestic theatrical audience, but prospects beyond that seem dim: Despite its vivid nature, the film is neither relieved by star performers nor compromised by obvious, inappropriate violence or low humor.
The “Beans” of the title are an unsettling brood of loggers of the title outpost (population: 729).
Reuben (Rutger Hauer) is a drinker and brawler who runs afoul of the law and lands a long prison term. He leaves behind Roberta (Kelly Lynch), his companion and mother of a brood of nine. Also part of the extended family is Beal (Patrick McGaw), who becomes Roberta’s sometime lover and possesses the famous Bean short fuse.
All this is observed by Earlene (Martha Plimpton), a neighbor under the thumb of a strict religious father. Her dad warns her against any contact, but, despite the Beans’ crude ways, the young woman is drawn to them; their earthiness, directness and unity stand in sharp contrast to her oppressive family life.
The spirit of Carolyn Chute’s anecdotal novel arrives onscreen with an understandable, even winning, awkwardness. Confusion is an apt byword for the proceedings, and Bill Phillips’ screenplay captures the seesaw battle between repulsion and attraction to the characters cast amid a harsh environment.
The context provides Plimpton with a rich opportunity to transform from naif to haggard housewife. Her unique context provides the glue for this ramshackle yarn. Tyro director Jennifer Warren also fares well with the other players: Hauer, Lynch and especially McGaw as the proud, vain and doomed Beal offer rich portraits.
“The Beans of Egypt, Maine” is an effective, if limited-appeal, human drama. One senses the filmmakers’ ambivalence toward the principals, but in this instance, that is precisely the right posture.