Anchored by a tough, star-making turn by indie regular Susan Traylor, “Valerie Flake” is an offbeat character study about an embittered young widow who has a novel way of mourning: She insults anyone and everyone who makes the mistake of offering condolences. When she isn’t making friends and relatives feel like two cents, Valerie boozes and bed-hops to forget. Traylor’s salty lead, plus several strong supporting turns, hold our attention, even as script wallows in cliches and helmer John Putch determinedly undermines Traylor’s sting with crude flashbacks and wall-to-wall folk-rock songs. Spotty specialty-house bookings await, followed by speedy crossover to video.
If nothing else, Valerie is an equal-opportunity baiter: Lovers, needy strangers and a well-meaning sister all come in for kiss-offs and openly sarcastic taunts. What makes Valerie, a once-promising artist, fume? Initially we assume it’s the senseless death of her young husband in a motorcycle accident.
All assume they were the perfect couple. As pic unfolds, and Valerie swaps L.A. for Palm Springs, where loving in-laws reside, we learn different.
Valerie curls her lip at the world out of well-placed guilt.
Thin opening vignettes give way to more satisfying situations in Palm Springs, where Valerie stays with Mr. and Mrs. Flake (Rosemary Forsyth and Peter Michael Goetz) and slowly reconnects as she’s pursued by nice-guy grocer Tim (Jay Underwood). Valerie meets her bitch-on-wheels equal in Tim’s mother (Christina Pickles), who pegs Valerie as a heartbreaker from the start.
Verbal sparring between the two at a golf course tells us Valerie has met her match. She takes renewed interest in Tim as soon as she’s told to stay away.
Spunky, realistic road pic-romances, a la Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” are hard to come by these days. Which is why “V.F.” initially seems so refreshing. Scribe Robert Tilem is obviously up to something different with an anti-heroine who gets to us, despite her unpleasant personality.
Anything-but-conventionally feminine Traylor is largely responsible for this. The down-turned smile and fixed stare tell us her put-downs are really directed inward, and after a while, the biting sarcasm seems almost endearing. No small feat for an actress.
If anything, Traylor is too ballsy for this pic, which has trouble finding balance between cynicism and schmaltz. To his credit, Putch eschews pat finish, but this leads only to more confusion. Why does the promiscuous Valerie repeatedly refuse to donate blood? Does she fear AIDS? Question is not so much sidestepped as left unexplored.
Underwood avoids obvious traps by making his puppy-dog-eager beau seem charming and likable, not the victimized simp. Unfortunately, character’s 11th-hour turnabout doesn’t track. Pickles is appropriately prickly as Underwood’s overly protective mom, even if pic squanders potential adversarial fireworks by raising the white flag too soon. Vet stage and screen great Forsyth is convincing as the proud mother who refuses to place blame for her son’s death, but Goetz’s father-in-law, who has a habit of springing up unannounced, seems almost menacing.
Robert Romanus, the louse Romeo in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” has a nice, underplayed bit as a bartender; Richard Cummings Jr. and Kevin Rahm as security guard and nosy jogger, respectively, are saddled with scripts of heavy-handed sentiments; and Ann Gillepsie does what she can with a mostly thankless role of disapproving pregnant sis.
Tech credits are mostly solid, though overuse of hard-driving songs by Kathleen Wulhoite (“Suck the Joy,” etc.) soon boomerang, sucking inherent emotion from the situation.