The hippie counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s was formed by young adults escaping the constraints of their parents’ perceived social conformity. But what about their offspring, often raised in circumstances that rejected child-rearing conventions without necessarily settling on any viable alternatives? It’s a standard wisdom by now that kids need structure — even if only to have something to rebel against later. Without it, they seem less liberated than simply lost.
That’s certainly the case with the juvenile protagonists in SJ Chiro’s “Lane 1974,” which is credited as being based on a memoir by Clane Hayward, but appears equally drawn from the writer-director’s own formative years on a Northern California commune in the Me Decade. If the children in similarly themed recent Amerindie dramas “Captain Fantastic” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” also suffered from excessively improvisational, anti-establishment parenting, they nonetheless enjoyed a degree of relative stability that would be the envy of their peers here. Though a bit light on cumulative dramatic impact, this atmospheric and keenly observed feature captures with bittersweet lyricism the pathos of growing up subject to the whims of free-spirited grownups who themselves could use some adult supervision.
With the fathers of her three children long out of the picture, Hallelujah (nee Karen) is, in theory, raising her three children alone. In reality, the ironically self-renamed single mother (she could scarcely be a personality less redolent of joy, let alone gratitude) leaves 13-year-old eldest Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss) to do most of the child-minding. Meanwhile, Hallelujah (Katherine Moennig; “Ray Donovan,” “The L Word”) sleeps off the prior night, or finds new ways to get the family thrown out of whatever temporary safe harbor they’ve most recently found.
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Near the film’s start, they’re ejected from a rural commune in California — the result of mom’s latest success in managing to break the rules even among people who profess to have none. Fortunately, the family has access to the converted school-bus home of its temporary traveling companions, fellow transient mother Clarise (Sara Coates) and her own two kids. Driving down the coast, this impromptu community camps out on a beach long enough for the kids (also including Shayla Timbermoon and Harry K. Curtis as Lane’s younger siblings) to briefly attend a local free school — something that, to them, is far more a luxury than a chore.
But a near-catastrophe for which negligent Hallelujah is partly responsible brings a hasty end to the two families’ union. While the kids are already all too accustomed to leaving short-term friends behind, it’s a particularly crushing separation for Lane and Clarise’s daughter, Sky (Sarah-Eve Gazitt), simpatico same-aged besties. Things are going to get still worse, however. Now stranded without transport or shelter, Hallelujah decides to totally abrogate her parental responsibilities. After briefly visiting and extracting money from her estranged mother (Annette Toutonghi), she begins off-loading the kids on any available doorstep — to the horror of Lane, who must eventually make a decision to determine her own future, rather than wait for her mother to (further) ruin it.
Chiro achieves one particularly wrenching emotional climax when Lane realizes yet another irreplaceable part of her identity is being unceremoniously ripped away for shipment elsewhere. But mostly the film excels at revealing details rather than articulating larger narrative points. The curious deprivations the kids endure is revealed in moments when Sky and Lane pine over the banal suburban solidity of home decor in a Sears-Roebuck-type catalog, or when Lane salvages store-bought cookies from a trash can for her siblings, risking the ire of their mother, who rages against “junk food” yet doesn’t worry nearly enough whether her children get enough to eat. As Hallelujah prefers to avoid cities, the settings in which her brood run a little too free are sylvan ones, often exquisitely captured by Sebastien Scandiuzzi’s widescreen camera — places that would be paradisiacal for travelers in better circumstances.
The film itself has a soft-edged, woodsy feel apt for the landscapes, lifestyle and era depicted, with a complementary soundtrack of acoustic folk-pop. What it doesn’t have, despite Celia Beasley’s astute editorial shaping, is a strong story arc — understandable given the rudderless nature of the characters’ lives, but somewhat problematic nonetheless.
That lack of a home base, either physical or psychological, is particularly felt at the close, when we’re meant to accept as progress what in fact looks like Lane exchanging one unstable, non-kid-friendly situation for another. It’s a fadeout more unsatisfying than the film seems willing to acknowledge. Still, there’s a lingering impression of strength in the performances Chiro draws from her juvenile actors. The adult characters, written in somewhat cryptic child’s-eye terms, are equally well turned — there’s certainly no softening in Moennig’s take on a figure who may not be outright villainous, but who defiantly repels sympathy.