Friendships grow, families get closer and everyone’s just a little gosh darn nicer to each other after a feisty old lady moves into a residential motel in the sentimental indie drama “Baraboo.” Debuting helmer Mary Sweeney is best known for her work as David Lynch’s editor, but the Midwestern setting and wistful tone here are much closer to “The Straight Story” (which Sweeney co-wrote) than to “Mulholland Dr.” Pic has its moments, but its flaws (trite script, mediocre HD lensing, so-so perfs) are too visible on the bigscreen to ensure anything more than niche outings.
In the titular Wisconsin town, good-hearted but lonely divorcee Jane (Brenda DeVita) holds down two jobs: working the register at the general store/gas station and running a motel. Her relationship with her surly teenage son Chris (Harry Loeffler-Bell) has deteriorated into little more than shouted arguments (“Do your homework!” “Go to hell!”). Resident Bob (Peter Morse), who takes tourists fishing for a living, is clearly interested in spending more time with Jane, but can’t quite pluck up the courage to ask her out.
When elderly local widow Bernice (Ruth Schudson) sells her farm and moves into the motel, things start to change around them parts. By sheer force of personality, she gets Chris to help out around the place and act more respectfully toward his mother. Egged on by Bernice, Bob finally asks Jane out on a date, and the residents begin forming a closer community over grilled fish at the nightly campfires.
Backstories slowly emerge, such as the fact that veteran Bob suffers from Gulf War syndrome, or that Bernice has had her own brush with war-related tragedy. Just in case anyone in the back has managed to miss the contempo significance of these facts, a friend of Chris’ is killed in action in Iraq.
Clearly, writer-helmer Sweeney wants to celebrate the values of small-town life with delicacy and warmth, and it’s commendable that her characters are never patronized or scoffed at for their modest ambitions. Nevertheless, the line between endearing and twee is a hard one to navigate, (one that, for instance, Garrison Keillor pulls off just right), but the pic’s tidy-verging-on-bland script crosses into twee territory a little too often.
“Baraboo’s” best moments come from little mini-dramas Jane observes at the store, involving, for example, a woman (Deborah Staples) who hasn’t enough money to buy her kids breakfast, or a man (James Pickering) who verbally abuses his wife (Rose Pickering) while filling his tank and then, without breaking stride, remarks cheerfully on what a beautiful day it is to Jane.
Tech credits are just OK. Pacing is deliberately slow; plenty of interstitial montages showing pretty scenery pad out the transitions between scenes, which will prove a further irritant to auds not wooed by the plot. Lurid color balance at the projection caught didn’t help further the pic’s cause.