Wilted and Subdued
Ah, the 1960s. A time when revolution stirred the air, when it looked as though the United States might change drastically. For the most part, it did, but we take that for granted now, when the most heated public debates concern political correctness and election finance reform. In that context, it’s perhaps no surprise that the ‘60s have been romanticized, commercialized, and distorted in media images like Oliver Stone’s The Doors: the era is remembered as mind-expanding, socially conscious, and more inspiring than today.
Occasionally, a movie comes along that attempts to remember the ‘60s as a time like all others, with competing ideologies, and both good and bad effects. Such a film is Melissa Painter’s feature debut, Wildflowers, briefly released to theaters in 1999, and now on video (and the Women’s Entertainment cable station). Starring Daryl Hannah as former flower child Sabine and Clea DuVall as Cally, a stereotypically troubled teen, the movie is set in 1985, over a decade after the counter-cultural movement withered and many of its participants converted to Reaganomics. While Wildflowers might have been a relevant commentary on the effects of the ‘60s, instead, it wilts on account of what appears to be poor preparation, production, and vision (a graduate of NYU’s film school, writer-director Painter shot the movie in only three weeks).
The movie is set in Marin County, California, where Cally lives with her dad (Tomas Arana) in a Sausalito houseboat community, a groovy remnant of the communes that flourished in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Cally never knew her mother who, following the freewheeling ethos of the hippie generation, abandoned her as a baby. Her father, a laid-back though somewhat helpless and irresponsible man, refuses to speak of the woman he once loved. While Cally has relics—various pieces of artwork—to remind her of her mom, she also seeks to define herself apart from her parents. By no small accident, a woman she encounters dancing at a Blues Traveler concert captivates her, and Cally is soon on the hunt to find out more about this isolated artist, Sabine. She seeks the help of Jacob (Eric Roberts), a drug dealer who knows Sabine and her secret past, in order to unlock the mystery behind the enigmatic woman.
Even though DuVall’s performance comes closest to carrying the movie, her sleepy recitation of her lines is more distracting than compelling. Hannah is particularly bad. Her Sabine is a bland stereotype of the sensual, secluded artist, and her qualities that attract Cally are hardly explored, thus making the entire plot as flimsy as the Warren Report. Though she is supposedly steeped in psychological frustration, Sabine appears here as little more than a sex object, a soft-spoken embodiment of every man’s fantasy. Former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Hass appears (unsurprisingly) as a poet with whom Sabine lives during her stay in Cally’s hometown: his poetry is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling movie.
Although an occasionally charming tale of growing up, rebellion, and coming to terms with the conflicts between individualism and responsibility, Wildflowers doesn’t cut too deeply beneath the surfaces of the characters, themes, or the cultural contrasts between the ‘60s and ‘80s. The cinematography is at times beautiful, providing an almost documentary-like feel, but the overly mellow pacing tends to drag, submerging what should be a promising narrative of discovery into a languid one. There is a lot of thematic potential for Painter’s film and, unfortunately, she tapped little of it. Much could have been said about the ramifications of “living free,” especially when children and family are brought into the picture (abandoning a young daughter isn’t a redeeming characteristic in any generation), but such complex notions are barely raised in Wildflowers. Why does Cally take such an unusual interest in Sabine? We can conjecture, using all the psycho-babble we want, but the film offers little in the way of developed causes and effects.
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