One of the more impressive qualities of “Battlecreek,” a slow-burn drama set in a sultry Mississippi town, is the way it upends audience expectations by taking a surprise detour or two while covering familiar ground. Throughout much of her sophomore feature (after 2007’s “Rails & Ties”), director Alison Eastwood does not transcend so much as artfully paper over the clichés and contrivances of a script, by Anthea Anka, that could easily be reconstituted as a stage play with only minor tweaking. But give Anka this much: When push comes to shove, she makes the resolution of her scenario all the more dramatically and emotionally satisfying by revealing that, in at least two cases, what appeared to be set-ups were in fact fake-outs.
It also helps that the movie is anchored by the sensitive and engaging performance of Bill Skarsgard (“It”) as Henry, a budding artist and chronic introvert who, because of a rare skin condition, must avoid any exposure to direct sunlight. As a child, Henry wandered outside his house one afternoon — and wound up with reddish scars on his neck and chest. Ever since, he has been, in the words of Robert Frost, his favorite poet, “one acquainted with the night.”
After the sun goes down in his hometown of Battlecreek, he has the same meal every night at his favorite diner, then goes to his job at a garage run by Arthur (Delroy Lindo, in typically great form), a longtime family friend who loves jazz a lot more than, well, running a garage. (The sole gas pump outside is permanently broken, for reasons never explained.) Near dawn, he returns to the house where he lives with Tallulah (a scenery-devouring Paula Malcomson), his possessive mom, a boozy slattern who’s given to reading palms and consulting tarot cards when she isn’t entertaining gentlemen callers.
Henry’s routine is interrupted only when Alison (Claire van der Boom), a young woman obviously on the run from something or someone, develops car trouble while driving through Battlecreek. Arthur offers to fix her vehicle, but must order parts to complete the job. To pay for the repairs, Alison takes a waitressing job at the diner where Henry is a steady customer. All of which means, of course, that the purposefully enigmatic stranger is in the right place, for enough time, to warily develop a relationship with the quiet young man with the soulful eyes and the unsightly scars.
“Battlecreek” proceeds at a measured pace while Eastwood and Anka methodically introduce predictable plot elements: Loud-mouthed cretins harass Henry, Tallulah jealously disapproves of her son’s love interest, Alison’s past eventually catches up with her, and so on. But, as indicated earlier, a couple of these elements are tricked out with twists. Through sheer force of acting skill, Dana Powell infuses appealing vitality into a character — Melinda, a jolly plus-size waitress — that could have come across as a tiresome stereotype.
And even when the movie skirts perilously close to banality, Skarsgard and Van der Boom develop a winning chemistry to hold our interest as their characters slowly (and in Alison’s case, very reluctantly) warm to each other.
Taking a cue from her father, Clint Eastwood, Alison Eastwood enhances “Battlecreek” with some smart musical selections. (Of course, dad probably would have included more jazz, and might even have written it himself, but never mind.) In addition to the effective score credited to Kyle Eastwood, her brother, and Matt McGuire, the soundtrack includes several well-chosen previously recorded songs, most notably Brett Dennen’s scruffily romantic “Ain’t Gonna Lose You” and Amos Poe’s ineffably affecting “Windows Are Rolled Down.”