Longtime “Survivor” producer David Burris’ feature directing debut, “The World Made Straight,” is an adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2006 novel about some hard-luck folk in 1970s rural Appalachia. This evenly paced drama holds interest with its uneasy character dynamics, interesting milieu and effective performances, though a story so frequently on the verge of violence ought to build more tension than Burris manages, while flashback elements that presumably worked on the printed page feel awkwardly integrated here. Ultimately a solid if not completely successful effort comparable to such recent backwoods coming-of-age character studies as “Winter’s Bone” and “Joe,” the pic launches theatrically and on VOD Jan. 9. The cast’s more familiar names should steer it toward a modest payoff, primarily in home formats.
Fired from his supermarket cashier job when he lets a poor customer leave without paying, 17-year-old high-school dropout Travis Shelton (Jeremy Irvine) is understandably moody and gruff: His prospects in this late-’70s western North Carolina region are near-nil. If that weren’t already depressing enough, there’s always his bullying pa (Alex Van) to insist he’ll never amount to anything.
Out fishing one day, Travis stumbles upon some marijuana plants. His pal Shane (Haley Joel Osment) hooks him up with disgraced local schoolteacher-turned-dealer Leonard, aka “the Professor” (Noah Wyle), who agrees to buy the pilfered goods but advises the youth to quit such risky doings while he’s ahead. Nonetheless, Travis sneaks back, now blatantly stealing from the crop of scary hillbillies Carlton Toomey (musician Steve Earle) and his son Hubert (Marcus Hester). Unfortunately for him, he steps right into a waiting bear trap. The Toomeys decide to let him live, albeit with a stern warning against any future meddling in their business.
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His wound requiring a hospital stay, Travis gains a potential girlfriend in sweet-natured student nurse Lori (Adelaide Clemens), but upon release discovers he is no longer welcome at home. With nowhere else to go, he lands on the doorstep of Leonard, who’s already got his hands full minding his self-proclaimed-drug-addict g.f., Dena (Minka Kelly). Nonetheless, he lets Travis crash, even encouraging him to study for his GED. The two men also find common ground when the younger grows fascinated by the elder’s collection of local Civil War artifacts — notably some yellowed journals detailing tragic events including a notorious massacre in which several of Travis’ ancestors were executed.
This historical angle is intriguing, though despite frequent voiceover diary excerpts and dramatic flashbacks, it never quite gels as key to the main narrative. We get that Travis is meant to be discovering himself through this family backstory, yet that doesn’t register strongly enough, particularly when he has a falling out with his benefactor over “kin” issues nearly 120 years old. (Leonard gets his own brief flashbacks explaining how he lost his job, marriage and child, but these too feel a bit schematic, too obviously boiled down from more nuanced source material.)
Travis’ easily roiled temper and Dena’s self-destructiveness ensure that the queasy truce between Leonard’s household and the Toomeys’ will eventually boil over. That eventuality should play more frighteningly than it does, though. While he gets a lot of things right here, Burris doesn’t milk much suspense from the volatile situations in Shane Danielsen’s screenplay. And while he’s unquestionably one of our finest living singer-songwriters, occasional actor Earle (who gets to sing a couple times here) is just OK in what should have been a memorably menacing role.
Wyle and Kelly seem a bit upmarket to be fully credible as born-and-raised residents of this here holler (an issue surprisingly not shared by Brit Irvine or Aussie Clemens), but they and other actors contribute strong turns. The location-shot pic benefits considerably from David Gordon Greene regular Tim Orr’s fine widescreen lensing; other tech and design elements are also handsomely turned, including an aptly bluegrass-inflected original score by N.C. psych-folk unit Megafaun.