Mar 19, 2014

Winona Week: Day 2

Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael
Dir: Jim Abrahams
Any time that a young actor rises through the ranks and becomes a star in Hollywood, they are likely to be stuck for a while making coming of age movies.  Like every genre this one has its ups and downs, but whether by luck or judgement (probably the latter, given her instincts about Heathers) Winona Ryder fell into a lot of very good coming of age films.  Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael is, like Square Dance before it and Mermaids which followed it, nearly forgotten now, largely a cult item for Ryder's fans, but it really deserves to be dug up.

Ruder plays Dinky Bosetti, a 15 year old misfit living in the small town of Clyde, Ohio.  Clyde is abuzz because prodigal daughter Roxy Carmichael, who turned her back on the place 15 years ago, is returning for a party in her honour.  Dinky, who is adopted, believes that Roxy is her mother, and that when she comes for the party they will be reunited and drive off into the sunset to start a new life.

On the face of it you might wonder why Dinky, who comes across as extremely intelligent and is a high achiever at school despite her rejection of much of its structure, believes so fervently, with so little evidence, that Roxy is her mother.  Ryder makes this apparent contradiction play because, as a teenager, Dinky is full of contradictions.  She's a misfit, and there is clearly something willful about that, as much at school as at home, but we can also see that she yearns to belong.  She's matter of fact, but not a little regretful, as she tell her guidance counselor (Laila Robbins) that she and her parents are just so different that she doesn't feel at home.  That's the key to Dinky's determined self-delusion; a desperate need to belong somewhere, and the natural assumption that that somewhere is with her birth mother.  

Ryder gives a wonderful performance.  As determinedly as Dinky shuts many people out, you can see why others (her guidance counsellor, a boy from school) are drawn to her; she has a quirky charm, which probably comes from Ryder herself.  There's a lot of good dialogue here too, and Ryder has the confidence to toss some of the best lines away (such as the funny moment when her pet pig is eating from another animal's bowl and she admonishes him for being a cliché).  It's also nice that, though she's clearly interested, the sudden interest of a boy isn't the be all and end all of Dinky's life, even as the film ends she's giving him a hard time.  Overall it's a lovely piece of characterisation with actor and script playing off each other beautifully.

The film is dominated by Winona Ryder, but the supporting cast are largely good as well.  Most notable is Jeff Daniels, as solidly real as ever, as Roxy's old boyfriend who still seems haunted by her.  His, Ryder's and Laila Robbins' grounded performances provide the film a solid centre so that the cartoonier stuff around them doesn't take over and unbalance the tone.

Director Jim Abrahams (one third of the team behind Airplane! and the Naked Gun films) proves capable with the film's drama, but also brings a slightly skewed comic look to the story.  The way that the town seems almost hypnotised by Roxy's promised return, the whole place like a cult devoted to her, to the point that her childhood home is made into a museum, is all the funnier because for much of the running time we have no idea what she did that warrants this celebrity.  In this way, and especially once you know what's notable about Roxy, the film seems ahead of its time; an inadvertent satire of shallow celeb culture.

On the whole, Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael is a smart, funny and engaging film, boasting an excellent leading performance, in fact it's some of Ryder's best early work and just on that basis it deserves to be better remembered, but there is much more than one star tun to recommend here.

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