A beautifully conceived documentary inquiry into the life and work of Southern writer Larry Brown, “The Rough South of Larry Brown” is chock-full of valuable insight for readers and aspiring writers alike. Through intimate conversations with Brown and his wife, it offers a candid, unrefined portrait of Brown’s decadelong struggle to become a published writer, as well as the intense dedication his writing demands now that he is established. There’s no Cinderella story here, and director Gary Hawkins doesn’t overextend himself by trying to include the perspectives of Brown’s fans, friends, publishers, etc. The frame of the film is compact, like one of Brown’s own stories, the result quite impressive. A fine companion piece to this year’s other standout lit-world docu, “Stone Reader,” pic is a natural for docu fests and sidebars, but also could perform in specialized theatrical venues.
Brown is arguably one of the most electrifying prose stylists working today. Pat Conroy has said Brown writes like a force of nature. He creates novels and stories that might be satirized as being the literary equivalent of those country songs about a wife who’s left and a truck that’s done broke down — if Brown’s stories weren’t so good. Brown works with sunlight, heat, dust and thick Southern air as distinctively as Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.
As Brown puts it, the physical process of putting words on paper is not significantly different from the roof-building, fire-fighting and pulpwood-cutting he did in the years before he was able to support himself from his writing. Putting together a novel or a collection of stories is a long, slow, arduous haul, and for the time “Rough South” is on screen, it immerses us in that process, offering a sense of how Brown’s fiction emerges from his environment and his fertile mind. But you don’t have to know or even like Brown’s work to admire the thoughtfulness and craftsmanship of Hawkins’ film, which is inspiring for its suggestion that all the bloody sacrifices of writing lead to handsome, intangible rewards.
If Brown’s story sounds familiar, it may be because his semi-autobiographical novella “92 Days” was the basis for Arliss Howard’s directorial debut, “Big Bad Love.” Howard’s film, with its hackneyed surrealism and strained artsiness, fell so wide of Brown’s mark that it’s particularly valuable to now have “Rough South,” which in addition to its docu component adapts three of his short stories to the screen. Any frame of these sterling vignettes gives off a better sense of Brown’s boozy bar rooms and Mississippi backroads than “Big Bad Love” did, and the segments are disappointing only for employing narrators who don’t always speak with the impassioned force Brown’s words deserve. Of the trio, “Wild Thing,” presented as a series of black-and-white stills with voiceover, is the most ravishing, while “Samaritans” features a resplendent perf by Will Patton, who is perfectly suited to Brown’s gallery of stoic, hard-drinking archetypes.