Middling “Miss Meadows” blends black comedy, character study and thriller elements into a mixture that doesn’t quite gel, though it’s watchable enough. Katie Holmes plays a secretive newcomer to a lower-middle-class neighborhood whose bad people begin suffering deaths at the hand of a mysterious vigilante — as they did, we soon glean, in her previous places of residence. The premise holds more promise than Karen Leigh Hopkins’ screenplay and direction ultimately deliver, resulting in a polished but unmemorable minor item destined for decent home-format sales. eOne is opening it on single Los Angeles and New York screens this Friday, simultaneous with VOD launch.
Mary Meadows (Holmes) is introduced walking down a leafy residential street, communing with local birdies and breaking into an occasional tap dance — drawing immediate parallels to Mary Poppins and other Disneyfied do-gooders that the film might have developed further, to more wittily subversive ends, than it manages. This Mary’s chipper yet prim composure isn’t ruffled a whit when a loutish guy in a passing truck begins harassing her. Once he reveals still worse intentions by pulling a gun, she simply pulls out her own, blows the nasty man away, and continues traipsing on down the lane.
No wonder Miss Meadows is rather secretive, devoted to gardening and knitting in her latest home while keeping curious strangers like neighbor Mrs. Davenport (Mary Kay Place) at a polite distance. She’s the new substitute teacher at a local elementary school, replacing a woman who sadly turns out to have succumbed to “the Big C.” While Mary’s attempts to buck up her grieving students aren’t greatly appreciated by their sour principal, the kids themselves do warm to her old-fashioned, morally improving cheer. It likewise attracts an area cop she simply dubs Sheriff (an ingratiating James Badge Dale). Rather surprisingly, she accepts his amorous overtures — though her bizarrely giggly response to sexual intimacy suggests that is new terrain for her.
However, he and his department are already on the trail of the vigilante one colleague describes as “kind of a ‘Pulp Fiction’ Mary Poppins.” He’s increasingly worried about his own Mary’s possible involvement in these killings. Meanwhile, she’s worried about the arrival in the area of creepy parolee Skylar (Callan Mulvey), whom Sheriff identifies as a past child molester; once that character is introduced, it’s obvious where the narrative will be heading. An eventual retreat into conventional thriller terrain isn’t managed with much panache or tension, and a limp happily-ever-after sequence underlines the pic’s failure to make very much of the twisted-fairy-tale aspect that is its most distinctive element.
A more daring film might have derived suspense from the potential fallibility of Mary’s self-righteous zeal as judge, jury and executioner. Mightn’t she occasionally, mistakenly lump a not-so-guilty party in with the “bad people in the world” she’s intent on expunging? But thesp-turned-scenarist Hopkins (“Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael,” “Because I Said So”), making her first directorial feature in many years, and exec producer Holmes ensure their protagonist only stumbles across certified 100% scumbags. Thus Mary is rather uncomplicated for a delusional murderess (with, it turns out, an imaginary friend as her only real confidante). She’s all too simply “explained” by a pat flashback to the inevitable formative tragedy.
The slightly bland surface Holmes has too frequently deployed as an adult actress actually works well for this exaggeratedly nice character composited from ’50s sitcom housewives, Miss Poppins and other retro fantasy figures. It’s one of her better performances. Still, one can’t help wondering what satirically creepy vibes a more risk-taking actor might have eked from Mary’s archaic speech patterns and other idiosyncrasies — or how they might have suggested her underlying pathos without simply bursting into tears every so often, as Holmes does.
Dale aside, the supporting turns are solid but hemmed in by one-note roles and (for the child actors) some over-precocious dialogue. Cleveland-shot pic is smoothly handled in tech and design departments.