Bruce Dern’s Oscar strategists can rest easy: The actor’s sterling lead turn in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” is posed no competition by his other appearance of the season, in the bleeding-heart indie “Fighting for Freedom.” Casting Dern as yet another solid farm-belt type railing against the dying of the light (and of the American Heartland), this well-meaning but incredibly stilted portrait of illegal immigrants struggling to stay north of the border has snuck into a single Los Angeles-area screen clearly hoping to catch a bit of its star’s second wind in its sails. Better luck next time.
“Freedom” reps a clear labor of love for producer-thesp Kristanna Loken (best known for playing the distaff T-X in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”), who spent her own youth on an upstate New York apple farm run by her father, Chris, who’s credited here with the screenplay and seems to have been the model for Dern’s character. (An opening title card states that the pic is “inspired by an actual event.”) Early scenes unfold along the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrant worker Oscar (Jose Maria Yazpik) finds himself detained and unable to cross back to the States after visiting his ailing mother at home. In one of the screen’s least flattering depictions of the INS, a fascistic border agent tells Oscar in no uncertain terms: “America doesn’t want you anymore.”
Oscar is trying to make his way back to the subtly named Love Orchard, N.Y., seen in sun-glazed majesty under the opening credits as a musicalized version of Emma Lazarus’ immortal immigrants’ plea, “The New Colossus,” plays on the soundtrack. Oscar was once the Love Orchard foreman, becoming a surrogate son to the owner, Christian Dobbe (Dern). Dobbe’s only heir, his daughter Karen (Loken), opted to become a high-powered Washington, D.C. lawyer instead of going into the family business — a decision that has driven a wedge between her and pops, but comes in handy when Love Orchard becomes ground zero for an Elian Gonzalez-style diplomatic crisis.
Unable to cross the border legally, Oscar, his wife and their infant daughter (their two older, U.S.-born children have been sent ahead) set out on an arduous desert trek under the guidance of a lip-smackingly sinister “coyote” (J. Eddie Martinez) who threatens to sell the baby for cash and looks like he could, at any moment, swallow it whole. (Fortunately, a grizzled old cowboy who seems to have ridden out of a Hopalong Cassidy western, materializes out of the blue to save the day.) “Freedom” then flashes forward three years to find Oscar and family happily ensconced among Love Orchard’s amber waves — until La Migra shows up to crash the party, singling out Oscar’s youngest for her illegal status and placing the toddler under arrest.
Director Farhad Mann (a TV veteran whose previous featured credit was the inauspicious “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace,” in 1996) stages everything with the leaden air of a lesser “Matlock” episode, perfectly complemented by the elder Loken’s two-ton dialogue. At one point, an INS bigwig is described as hailing from “a long line of Eastern establishment families that think immigration should have ended with the Mayflower.” And indeed, the Mayflower comes to figure prominently in Karen’s defense strategy — a rhetorical argument of the kind that might have scored points in a high-school debate club. Like this summer’s big-budget “Elysium,” “Fighting for Freedom” argues strenuously for open borders but fails to grapple with the long-term sustainability issues posed by such a scenario.
Though seemingly intended as a showcase for the strapping younger Loken’s serious dramatic chops, Karen is a mostly thankless role that requires the actress to spend most of the movie’s first half as a poster child for soul-killing capitalism (she even lives in one of those icy, ultra-modern houses where every line of dialogue echoes off the too-high ceilings and sparsely decorated walls). An old pro like Dern and his flinty, cracked-leather charisma can’t help but kick things up a notch whenever he’s on screen — which, despite his top billing, isn’t often enough (with much of that time consisting of reaction shots during the protracted courtroom finale).
Unusual presence of double credits in almost every key craft area suggests the pic may be the product of an interrupted production schedule.