“The Last Best Sunday” is rendered instantly watchable by an extraordinary American bigscreen debut from Angela Bettis. Young thesp plays a conflicted yet feisty adolescent who finds her ticket out of repressed small-town life in the form of a Mexican classmate, who breaks into her home while on the lam from a violent run-in with racist locals. Pic manages to outlast an exasperatingly caricatured subplot and about 10 too many minutes to emerge as an involving item with strong appeal for mature, disenfranchised teens and adults alike. Judiciously trimmed and properly handled, the film could have righteous prospects across the calendar.
On a Friday afternoon in the small California town of Pickley — advertised home of “Fresh Fruits and Vegetables” — Lolly Ann Summers (Bettis) is being given a weekend of freedom from her religious parents as they leave town, with Mom (Kim Darby) lecturing her on things not to do — advice that Lolly Ann promptly ignores in favor of ordering a pizza and smoking cigarettes while bouncing on her bed listening to rock music.
At the same time, Joseph (Douglas Spain), whose migrant parents have already moved on for the season, labors as busboy in a local dive, the Hoot and Holler, in anticipation of those last few credits needed for his high school diploma. Severely beaten by a pair of local toughs, the boy exacts violent revenge and picks Lolly Ann’s house at random to hide in.
As Lolly Ann and Joseph square off inside, bigoted lame duck Sheriff Weaks (William Lucking) searches for the boy throughout the town. Slowly, the two teens, each toting heavy emotional baggage, overcome their class differences to unite in love. Their confrontation at first appears no better or worse than countless similar dramatic devices, yet as they unburden themselves to each other, verbally and then physically, a bond becomes evident that should draw in even the most hard-hearted of auds.
Pic’s major flaw is heavy-handed treatment of the racist element in Karen Kelly’s otherwise insightful script, as the narrow-mindedness of Weaks and his bartending chum (character actor Mickey Jones) is overplayed to the point of grotesqueness. A feeble effort to temper this, with Craig Wasson as an apparently compassionate deputy sheriff set to take over first thing Monday morning, fails miserably, a victim of underwriting.
Final hurdle is the explosive denouement on the day of rest, which plays out to highlights from the doomed affair and script howlers like “Thank you for letting me love you.” Some cutting here, as well as in the startlingly frank love scene, just short of explicit, could only improve pic’s chances.
Yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, thanks entirely to Bettis’ remarkable, mercurial perf. An extraordinarily complex creature, whose demeanor recalls the noble vulnerability of Joan Allen and the defiant resolve of Holly Hunter, her Lolly Ann is straddling that fence between adolescence and womanhood, burdened with an austere childhood yet not quite ready to stand on her own two feet. In the same way Juliette Lewis commanded the screen in “Cape Fear” by virtue of her anonymity, Bettis — who bowed in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1993 Italian pic “Sparrow” — gives proceedings an unpredictable, invigorating emotional charge.
Saddled with the script’s most awkward and challenging lines, Spain proves to be the equal of his co-star, adding nuance and nobility to the drama, and Darby is pungent as Lolly Ann’s Bible-thumping mom. Other thesp and tech credits are fine.
In addition to sharp storytelling skills and an obvious bond with his teenage leads, debuting director Don Most deftly balances drama and comedy, a juggling act no doubt honed during his six-year stint as Ralph Malph on “Happy Days.” His co-star on that series, Marion Ross, cameos here as a blustery neighbor who provides bizarre but successful comic relief.