Announcing its intentions and major plot points with a diva belting “Trailer Trash Blues,” Del Shores’ “Blues for Willadean” isn’t aiming for subtlety. But then, that quality would be no more at home here than in the writer-helmer’s prior works for stage and screen (“Sordid Lives,” “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?”). His latest is an often crude, uneasy mixture of comical Texas caricatures and serious domestic-violence depiction. Commencing niche theatrical dates Oct. 5 (with VOD launch Oct. 14), it’ll stir minor theatrical biz. But Shores’ loyal fanbase should ensure a long shelf life in ancillary.
The aforementioned, nameless chanteuse (Debby Holiday) is a sort of Greek chorus here, singing original gospel and blues songs (by Joe Patrick Ward) whose Shores-penned lyrics comment on the travails of Willadean (Beth Grant). Willadean is a shrinking violet living in a Mesquite, Texas, trailer home under the thumb of her husband, J.B. (David Steen), a high-school sweetheart turned construction worker with a tendency to get drunk, come home and beat his wife for any reason that comes to mind.
Willadean is introduced visiting with neighbor/best friend LaSonia (Octavia Spencer), whose name is pronounced “Lasagne,” which indicates the low-end-camp tenor of the humor here. While they’re watching a “Jerry Springer”-type chatshow, Willadean’s ancient TV dies. Predictably, J.B. goes ballistic, storming back to the local bar after belting his spouse a few times.
The trailer park and said bar are also home to Rayleen (Dale Dickey), a hard-living cocktail waitress whose age-inappropriate Daisy Dukes, tank tops and constant F-bombs make even Willadean and LaSonia feel she’s a tad beneath them. Nonetheless, Willadean befriends the newcomer, unaware that loser-prone, oft-married Rayleen is meanwhile succumbing to the pawing overtures of faithless J.B.
This betrayal, once exposed, predictably worsens Willadean’s situation while giving her the courage to finally break free from domestic purgatory en route to a hysterically pitched climax.
With its musical interludes, cartoonishly etched social strata, stock melodramatic beats, churchy inspirational tilt, and on-the-nose treatment of widely relatable issues (domestic violence, infidelity, a seldom-discussed gay relative, etc.), “Blues” is a poor-white-Southerner equivalent to the sin-before-salvation plays Tyler Perry produced before movies beckoned.
The pic adapts Shores’ 2003 legiter “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife,” with the original actors reprising their roles, and seemingly few, if any, text cuts or other concessions to the more mobile medium. So most of “Blues” consists of long dialogue exchanges and monologues best suited for the stage, with just fleeting glimpses outside the two main sets.
Spencer, the most high-profile thesp here since her Oscar win for “The Help,” is in restrained form — perhaps wisely, given the up-and-down emotional scales played like cats on a piano by her co-stars. They’re doing just what they’re told; for Shore and his fans, over-the-top is never too much. Packaging is competent.