Although it’s based on a novella by George Sand — a “French novella,” as the opening credits helpfully inform us — “Red Wing” may remind movie buffs more of the ‘50s romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Unfortunately, helmer Will Wallace’s turgid indie about an orphan’s progress in small-town Texas is too bloodlessly tame to ever attempt the swoony crescendos of passion that are the hallmarks of “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind” and other Sirk favorites. Instead, the pic remains earthbound and anemic, and never elicits much in the way of emotional investment. Commercial prospects are dismal.
Scripter Kathleen Orillion does a reasonably efficient job of transporting key elements of her source material — “The Country Waif,” a tale originally set in 19th-century provincial France — to cattle ranching communities in contemporary Texas. (Pic was shot in and around Whitewright, a Lone Star State town near the Oklahoma border.)
Despite being burdened with an adulterous husband and a shrewish mother-in-law, ranch wife Maddie Blanton (Breann Johnson) remains warm-hearted and generous-spirited. Shortly after giving birth to a son, she befriends 9-year-old Francis (Austin Harrod), an orphan who lives nearby in a trailer with Isabelle (Cathy Diane Tomlin), his well-meaning but sickly foster parent.
After Isabelle’s demise, Maddie more or less adopts Francis, who grows up to be a hunky 18-year-old (Glen Powell). Their relationship remains entirely proper, but that doesn’t stop Carl (Luke Perry), Maddie’s husband, from suspecting his wife may be a tad too fond of the now-adult foundling. And his worst suspicions are encouraged by Vera (Joelle Carter), Carl’s slatternly lover, as a kinda-sorta payback after Francis politely discourages Vera’s romantic advances.
One thing leads to another, and Francis winds up forced to leave town and find work at a larger ranch operated by Jim Verret (Bill Paxton), a firm but fair fellow whose teenage daughter (Mallory O’Donoghue) warms to Francis. But their chaste romance is cut short when Francis is compelled to return to the Blanton ranch and sort out his true feelings about Maddie.
Wallace, stepson of filmmaker Terrence Malick (who’s credited here as an executive producer), sustains a languid pace throughout “Red Wing,” muffling most expressions of emotion in a manner that indicates he feared sensationalizing the borderline-incestuous relationship at the center of his story. He might have done well to employ similar restraint in depicting his female supporting characters, some of whom — including those played by Fisher, Carter and (as another temptress rebuffed by Francis) Niki Koss — seem positively cartoonish in their selfishness.
Johnson comes across as sincere and sympathetic, as does Powell. Because Johnson never appears to age, however, it’s difficult for the leads to suggest there’s anything unseemly, much less taboo, about the relationship between their characters. Of course, that, too, could be part of Wallace’s apparent plan to make “Red Wing” as inoffensive as possible.
Tech values are uneven. Wyatt D. House’s lensing is subpar, and the washed-out colors of many exteriors are a major distraction.