It seems like, every year, the Academy Awards introduces us to a new actor or actress that we should have heard of already, but for some reason (not wholly our own fault), we haven’t. In 2006, it was Felicity Huffman. In 2008, it was France’s Marion Cotillard. And in 2009, the new name messing up Oscar pools everywhere was Melissa Leo. Though she’s been in the business since 1984, few of her films have been mainstream successes. And when she does appear in wide release efforts – Mr. Woodcock, Righteous Kill – she’s never the recognizable lead. Still, Leo is the very definition of a working actress (her IMDb page boasts over 80 appearances in her two decade career). Right after Frozen River, the title that would come to define her current higher profile, she traveled to South Africa to make the thriller Lullaby – and it’s a good thing too. Without Leo, this shallow suspense film would be wholly forgettable.
Stephanie is a waitress living a dead-end life in the middle of nowhere America. Every week, she travels to the local Western Union station and wires money to her beloved son Stephen who is currently holed up in South Africa. What Stephanie doesn’t know is that her boy is a crackhead, in debt to a drug dealer who doesn’t take such matters lightly. Along with pregnant girlfriend Tina, the strung out kid is in a lot of trouble. One day, Stephanie receives a call at work. It’s T-Boy, the aforementioned South African mobster. He wants a ransom and he wants it NOW. Instead of simply wiring the cash, Stephanie calls in a few favors, grabs her passport, and travels halfway around the world to help her child. When she arrives in Johannesburg, the culture shock is overwhelming. But that’s nothing compared to the personal sacrifices she will make to help everyone – Stephen…and expecting gal pal Tina as well.
Lullaby is a flim flam flick. It wants to substitute local color for actual thrills and standard crime drama dynamics for evocative foreign flavor. In the hands of native Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina! , Cry the Beloved Country), this South African take on typical ‘innocent in a world of vice’ is not effective enough to get us involved. Like the recent, redundant Lake City, Lullaby provides its audience with no real rooting interesting in the outcome. We have some compassion for Stephanie, especially with the amount of emotion Ms. Leo invests in the role. But since nothing is really set-up – not the relationship with the son, not the backstory as to how he got to South Africa, not our heroine’s histrionic move to simply pull up stakes and head across the Atlantic – that by the time the bad guys appear, we don’t know whether to hiss or yawn. The inherent bond between mother and child is inferred and exploited, but never to a successful end. By the time the plot demands payback, we are simply going through the mechanical movie motions.
It has to be said that Leo is electrifying here. She really invests Stephanie with a desperation that practically overwhelms this tiny film. Eyes consistently filled with fear and tears, and body bent from a life of serving others, this scrappy matriarch should really make us care about her plight. But screenwriters Donald Barton, Ivan Millborrow, and Michael Sellers don’t know the first thing about empathy. They simply start the story and hope our feelings eventually catch up. This is particularly true of the Middle Act meet-up with prostitute Tina. Stephanie is supposed to see a kindred spirit in this waste of a working girl, someone struggling to survive, but the callous, cynical nature of this whore undermines any sympathy. And when they suddenly turn into Thelma and STDS, robbing the locals to raise T-Boy’s payment, the myriad of unanswered questions subvert any suspense.
The rest of the performances are rote, to say the least. Joey Dedio has clearly spent far too long in cornrows to be this cavalier. His T-Boy is about as menacing as a man in bad hair can be. Similarly, Lisa-Marie Schneider’s Tina is an ambiguity looking for some kind of filmic focus. She’s bad-ass, she’s battered. She sold out Stephen (?) but then wants to help him (???). Elsewhere, Roodt loads the screen with lots of amateur actors, people who absolutely look the part, but who don’t necessarily know how to play it. There is nothing subtle here. Everything is frontier, “in your face” grandstanding. Even the minor roles tend to overstay their welcome, taking away from the movie’s desire to place you directly on the edge of your seat.
Still, Lullaby languishes in the mind, not because of Roodt’s skill behind the lens, but because of the numerous loose ends left dangling. The relationship between the criminals and the victims, the reason Stephanie is so broken up about her son, the boy who she visits when first arriving in South Africa, the reason she seeks no assistance from anyone in authority or legal power, who she turns to for money, why the diner owner makes a pass – all of these things are introduced, dramatized, and then left to dissipate and decay. Of course, even if they were all wrapped up in the neatest of bows, Lullaby would still lack a solid connective core. The more and more Ms. Leo moves away from the rational and the reasonable, the less and less we care about the outcome.
Indeed, the independent realm was not the right medium for this kind of movie. A lo-fi approach to high tension material only derails the proposed spectacle. Since everyday people usually don’t find themselves locked in cat and mouse conflicts with the criminal element in their town, such heighten reality (and production value) is necessary. Not every film can be One False Move. Not every effort can house a performance like Leo’s. In combination, the incongruity between manner and Method negate each other, resulting in a dull and rather tedious experience. Sadly, it looks like this recent Oscar nom will go the way of so many “here today, forgotten tomorrow” talents. Melissa Leo will still make a living as a solid, sometime superior actress. Here’s hoping Lullaby doesn’t ruin her resume too badly.