Our Very Own

[20 August 2007]

By Jason Jones

Our Very Own is really two different movies, both vaguely watchable, but neither of which are very good.  The first plot essentially reprises Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.  A small town, in this case Shelbyville, Tennessee, starts bubbling with excitement over the imminent arrival of the one person ever to make it big: Sondra Locke, real-life actress in such movies as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Every Which Way But Loose, and director of such movies as Ratboy.  This plot focuses on five teenagers, including Clancy Whitfield (Jason Ritter) and Melora Kendal (Autumn Reeser), and their efforts to attract Ms. Locke’s attention and get the hell out of town before dying of boredom. 

The second plot is about a family, the Whitfields, rapidly disintegrating under the pressures of the father’s unemployment and drunkenness.  Keith Carradine plays the drunken father (Billy Whitfield), seemingly helpless to change his life for the better, and Allison Janney plays the noble, long-suffering wife (Joan Whitfield).  Janney was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for this role.  The plot is pure melodrama, and if it is wholly predictable and trite, Carradine and Janney make it tolerable.  One nice moment comes when the Whitfield family’s dining room set is about to be repossessed.  Janney publicly makes a good show of preserving her dignity and self-respect, but then privately she gouges the table with her diamond ring so that it can’t easily be re-sold. 

What ties these two plots together (beyond Jason Ritter’s Clancy) is Our Very Own‘s insistent preaching that you should be yourself.  The teenagers at the heart of this movie briefly hang all of their dreams of escape on precisely emulating Sondra Locke’s career.  From their point of view, if Locke doesn’t pluck them out of obscurity during this visit, they’re doomed to repeat the lives of their parents.  (A point reinforced when Joan Whitfield observes at a women’s luncheon that everyone she went to high school is still in town.)  Likewise, Billy Whitfield’s blind pursuit of self-destruction arises, in part, from his concern that he’s repeating his brother’s life, which ended in alcoholism and suicide.

Our Very Own is being billed as a coming-of-age story, one in which a group of small-town teenagers with big-city dreams discovers that the meaning of their lives isn’t the same as Sondra Locke’s.  But the movie’s two plot structure and its confusion of treacle for closure work against the coming-of-age theme.  The Whitfield plot can’t really be resolved, and so isn’t.  One day, the bank is coming after the family home; the next, an ostensibly chastened Billy Whitfield gives Clancy spending money for the Tennessee Walking Horse Competition.  He doesn’t get a job, or win the lottery, or inherit any money- - though he does have a mystical experience in the forest with Mary Badham (appearing in her first movie in nearly 40 years).  The movie’s inability to treat the family’s collapse as anything other than melodrama pulls the rug out from under Janney and Carradine.

The real problem with the movie is in the teenagers’ plot, which, oddly enough, has been replaying itself in real life. The Tennessee press about this movie makes for interesting reading: Local reviewers have mostly embraced Cameron Watson’s portrait of Shelbyville, and there are feverish articles about the cast’s admiration for small-town Southern culture.  In other words, these reviewers act exactly like the teenagers in the movie: they suggest that small-town Southern life requires a blessing from a condescending Hollywood in order to be meaningful. 

Our Very Own tries hard to show that Shelbyville is a fine place, but there is a kind of structural problem in having Hollywood stars play in a movie about the dreams of small-town kids.  The stars’ aura implies that the teenaged aspirations are right: you do need to go to Hollywood.  Staying in Shelbyville really is failure.  And so where a coming-of-age story might be expected to involve some readjustment of dreams, some realization that childhood fantasies don’t quite square with adult life, Our Very Own ends up with more or less infantile sentiment.

Watson should probably hope that Southerners don’t flock to rent this movie.  On the one hand, the sets are terrific.  I am from Virginia, with family in Alabama, and I could swear that I visited many of these homes in the ‘70s.  And Beth Grant is, as always, terrific.  On the other hand, the representation of Southern life isn’t especially accurate.  The sociology of the town seems wrong; for example, there are almost no black people. 

As ever in the movies, not only do the Southern accents fade in and out, but the actors who can do a Southern accent aren’t all doing the same one.  Worse, with a couple of exceptions, such as Grant, Watson’s directorial notes to his cast on playing Southern appear to have read as follows: “Pretend to be stupid—no, wait—stupid with a concussion!”  Saddest of all were the local hoodlums, who are supposed to be threatening but who would have a hard time startling a rabbit.  The disconnect between the verisimilitude of the sets and the transparently inauthentic performances is jarring.

Fans of Allison Janney, Autumn Reeser, or Jason Ritter will probably find Our Very Own enjoyable.  Otherwise, it’s eminently missable (and there are no special features to mention). If you’re looking for an interesting movie about the South with rich local detail, try Junebug.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/our-very-own/