Two Oscar-winning actresses tackle the issue of gay marriage by playing a longtime lesbian couple forced to cross the border to Canada in order to make their 31-year relationship legal in “Cloudburst,” a rousing, frequently rowdy comedy with considerable crossover appeal, thanks to a pair of juicy lead perfs by Brenda Fricker and Olympia Dukakis. Fricker plays Dot, a blind grandma forced into a retirement home against her partner’s will, while Dukakis outdoes even her most memorable earlier turns (including “Tales of the City” matriarch Anna Madrigal) as Stella, the irrepressible old dame determined to spring her lover free.
Adapting his own play to screen in such a way that one would never guess the resulting road movie’s legit pedigree, writer-director Thom Fitzgerald (“The Hanging Garden”) enticed his two leads with a script that delivers just the right balance of salty and sentimental, cleverly leavening its earnest subtext — that Dot and Stella have earned the right to be recognized as a couple — with generous doses of unapologetically blue humor. Already deep into its festival run, this feisty crowdpleaser has deservedly collected audience, thesping and top-pic prizes at LGBT and mainstream fests alike.
From the outset, “Cloudburst” establishes the unconventional pair’s special dynamic, first with a gooey scene in which Stella describes the sunset to the sightless Dot, and later via a saucier moment in their shared bedroom as Stella teases her mate with a vibrator. At their glorious age, they’ve fallen (in love) and can’t give up.
Estranged and oblivious, Dot’s granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) always assumed these two odd roommates were simply very good friends. Eager to inherit their beautiful waterfront house, Molly tricks Dot into giving her power of attorney, but Stella hasn’t gotten this far playing by other people’s rules. After squaring off with police, the old battle-ax stages a ludicrous jailbreak to liberate her life partner from an upstate Maine nursing home, resulting in a wildly funny (and nutty) setpiece.
With an APB out for their arrest, the couple hit the road, “Thelma and Louise”-style, in Stella’s beat-up red pickup truck. A cowboy hat perched atop a crop of slicked-back white hair, Dukakis suggests an icon of vintage American masculinity: sparky greaser attitude in a folksy Andy Griffith package. No one they encounter en route quite knows what to make of her, but then, even Stella admits she’s never known how to explain herself.
Ornery as a barbed-wire fence, Stella isn’t shy about picking fights, so it’s saying something that Dot can hold her own, giving Fricker plenty of room to play off Dukakis’ fireworks. Moreover, watching two older characters quarrel reveals so much more about a relationship than a story about two youngsters possibly could. In the face of such familiarity, gender ceases to be a factor — but of course, it takes a pair of great actors to suggest the couple’s three decades of history.
Rather than let the pair make their getaway alone, Fitzgerald supplies a bare-chested, Nova Scotia-bound hitchhiker (Ryan Doucette, cute but clearly a thesping novice in this group); though he’s not an unwelcome addition, this vanilla hunk was clearly intended to entice straight female and gay male viewers. Still, with dialogue this sharp and characters this appealing, and no shortage of stunning widescreen scenery to enjoy along the way, Fitzgerald could have taken the road trip nearly anywhere. He opts for tears, proving that all the comedy that has come before ran deep, surprising (and no doubt disappointing some) with the feelings that accompany the film’s final sunset.