Mar 17, 2014

Winona Week: Day 1

I have been wanting to do some themed weeks at 24FPS for a while now, largely to give myself an excuse either to investigate films I know little about or to indulge myself for a week and pretend that I am working.  This week it's the latter.

When I was about 9 I saw Edward Scissorhands at the cinema.  In the following years, leading up to the time that I was about 12, I also saw Beetlejuice and Mermaids, which helped cement my very first crush; a crush on Winona Ryder that endures twenty years later (though I did eventually take down the posters and pictures of her that took up a whole wall of my room when I was a young movie nerd).

This week Ryder is appearing in a new BBC drama, Turks and Caicos, which I'll also review in this series, and so I have decided to use this as an excuse to rewatch and review some of her lesser known films.  I have decided to work as much in chronological order as possible.

Besides my pieces towards the end of the week I am also hoping to have a guest piece on a much loved film of Ryder's that I won't be writing about, so hopefully that will prove a nice surprise for everyone.

Square Dance [1987]
Dir: Daniel Petrie
Aged just 15 when shooting and in only her second film, this was the first time that Winona Ryder had to carry a movie on her shoulders.  Ryder plays Gemma, a 13 year old living a rather hand to mouth life with her Grandfather (Jason Robards) after her Mother (Jane Alexander) moved away some years ago.  One day, out of the blue, Gemma's mother turns up and asks her to go to Fort Worth to live with her and her new boyfriend, initially Gemma refuses, but after an argument with her grandfather she hitches to Fort Worth.  Once there she falls for Rory (Rob Lowe), a much older but mentally handicapped and childlike boy.

Square Dance is a film I struggle to recommend, despite the fact that there is rather a lot that I like about it.  For fans of Winona Ryder it's worth seeing.  She had made a mark the previous year, with a small part in the utterly charming Lucas, but here she's front and centre, appearing in almost every frame of the film, and she impresses with a performance that seems full of insight into her character's naiveté.  Gemma is very much on the cusp; in a lot of ways she is called on to be an adult.  We see a lot of this in the early scenes between her and Jason Robards, in which Gemma is sometimes the grown up, for instance being the responsible one when her grandfather wants to stay out fishing even though a storm is clearly brewing.  We also see her childish side in this first half hour, whether it's in the scene where her grandfather teaches her to square dance or in her sometimes sulky responses to her irascible father figure. 

Square Dance is based on a novel, and there is definitely a sense of a chapter break when Gemma goes to Fort Worth.  Here we get to see her being more of a kid, but there is still that dichotomy of her coming of age.  She's clearly interested in Rory because she thinks he's good looking (and hey, even I can admit that 23 year old Rob Lowe was handsome), but it's just as clear that his handicap brings him down to her level, to a place where he's happy to play house with Gemma rather than do anything much more sexual.  Ryder plays this curiosity beautifully, and it's a quality that runs through her performance from Gemma's religious faith to her approachable nature.  Perhaps Ryder was going through or had very recently gone through a lot of what we see Gemma experience here, but either way her performance is defined by an easy naturalism.  This is something that is not on display in either the writing or some of the supporting performances.

The biggest problems centre around Rory.  I've spent quite a lot of time around adults with learning disabilities and the problem with Rory at both a script and performance level is that he's nothing more than a stereotype of those people.  He's a bit slow, he say inappropriate things at inappropriate times, but what is he?  Is he autistic?  He seems too outgoing for that.  He has none of the physical symptoms associated with Downs.  Instead the character is just 'handicapped' and Rob Lowe's approach is to talk a bit slowly and deliberately.  In this day and age it feels very uncomfortable, as if Rory is one of Lars Von Trier's 'Idiots'.

In spite of Ryder's concerted efforts and consistently grounded performance, the film around her becomes soapier with every passing scene and never manages to hit on a single surprising plot twist.  The other performance are largely decent, but also largely very broad, especially from Jason Robards, while Daniel Petrie's direction is solidly middle of the road and rather obvious.  On the whole Square Dance is more of a curio for Winona Ryder fans than it is an especially good film, but Ryder just about makes it worth sticking with.

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