Finished shortly before Hurricane Rita, director Bethany Ashton Wolf’s bayou-based potboiler “Little Chenier” ends with a photo of the devastation the storm caused, a poignant reminder of the fragility of this Louisiana community and its unique way of life. But in the film itself, human nature, not Mother Nature, proves the inescapable force that condemns a pair of siblings — one supermodel handsome, the other poetically feebleminded — to their tragic fate. Wolf’s lazy pacing and steamy theatrics may suit the milieu, but her backwater authenticity will go only so far in attracting auds to this regional curiosity.
Johnathon Schaech plays Beaux Dupuis, who shares the family houseboat with his mentally challenged brother Pemon (Fred Koehler). In this primeval environment, Pemon’s naivete (particularly on all things sexual) represents a kind of innocence. Apart from wrestling gators and trawling for fish, chasing women is pretty much the only thing these Lake Charles locals seem to enjoy. Only problem is, Beaux’s old flame has since gotten hitched, running off with resident jerk Carl Lebauve (Jeremy Davidson) for reasons not immediately understood.
To further complicate this Cajun love stew, the young lady in question (Tamara Braun) still comes ’round the Dupuis place, same as ever, with home-baked tarts for Pemon and some sugar for Beaux — just the kind of indiscretion to exacerbate her husband’s mean streak.
As Creole men go, Beaux and Carl couldn’t be more different. Even when he’s down to his last dollar, Beaux puts family first, filling in for his drunk daddy (Marshall Bell). Carl, by contrast, lets his father (Chris Mulkey) waltz into a gunfight, using the tragedy to become the new sheriff.
The badge is just the thing Carl needs to exact his revenge, giving him license to arrest Pemon on trumped-up charges and beat the kid senseless in his cell. Depending on your tolerance for such things, Koehler’s portrayal of the stuttering young man is either an astounding feat of transformation or a wince-inducing bit of manipulation.
Wolf seems to fancy “Little Chenier” as a Southern Gothic twist on John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” following the novel right up to its tragic climax before unveiling her twist. Though “Little Chenier” boasts its share of pulpy contrivance, the genuine locations, music and Cajun accents help balance the pic’s more melodramatic tendencies.
Solid supporting cast captures the characters in all their color. Clifton Collins Jr. proves especially memorable as T-Boy, that rare movie redneck permitted to wear his mullet proudly, while Tanja Koop’s lensing serves the environment well, alternating between static scenes and floating swamp shots. The emotions may be canned, but Wolf’s world seems very much alive.