Monday, October 3, 2011

Jolene at the Dairy Queen

For those of us who like movies and watch them a couple of times a week, there is always the chance that one or another will turn out to be a regretted waste of time. The chances of that are heightened when movies are casually selected from library shelves without much consideration, something grabbed up with quick confidence and the hopeful thought, “This one looks interesting.” Lucky this week, I stumbled upon a thoroughly entertaining movie.

Jolene is a 2008 film based on E.L. Doctorow’s short story “Jolene: A Life,” first published in The New Yorker in 2002. It was directed by Dan Ireland and stars Jessica Chastain. The picture didn’t get a lot of attention on its release, though it was an entry in the Seattle International Film Festival that year, and garnered some attention for Ms Chastain who won the festival’s Best Actress award for her performance. The path the film took to finally reach general audiences is almost as rocky as that of its heroine. It made its way through the small film festival circuit in 2008 and 2009 but didn’t manage a distribution deal until Next Turn Productions picked it up in 2010. The result was a paltry opening in a handful of theaters.

Jolene is the story of one girl’s bumpy ride from the age of fifteen to twenty-five. After surviving a series of abusive foster homes and in an attempt to escape the cycle of abuse, fifteen year-old Jolene marries a less than adequate young man. Within months of marrying the very ordinary Mickey Holler and starting a new life living with her husband’s aunt and uncle, the uncle forces himself on her and starts her first affair. When the two lovers are exposed, Jolene is thrown out, husband Mickey jumps off a bridge, Uncle Phil goes to jail and Jolene finds herself locked up in an institution for young women. And thus begins her ten-year journey across America in the pursuit of love and independence, across a series of very diverse relationships, and two more marriages. Jolene’s odyssey carries her through adventures from South Carolina to Arizona to Las Vegas to Tulsa and finally to Hollywood. She overcomes one adversity after another, threading herself into the lives of others, and surviving repeated trauma before finally finding her own path in life.

The director of this almost lost picture, Dan Ireland clearly has a way with his actresses, pulling from them outstanding performances. It was he who brought our attention to previously small-part actress Rene Zellweger in his 1996 picture, The Whole Wide World. In 2005 Ireland guided Joan Plowright’s glowing performance in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. He worked his magic with Jessica Chastain as well, proving he has a remarkable flair for bringing out the best in his female stars. Like Zellweger before her, Chastain’s career has taken off since her starring turn in Jolene. Whether it is by choice or lack of offers, Ireland has remained pretty much on the sidelines as a director, his last outing as director in 2008 for a television movie. I credit him with maintaining fidelity in Jolene with Doctorow’s short story. Rare that a film version is as faithful to the original as Ireland’s Jolene.

No doubt director and screenwriter both were helped by the original story’s episodic nature, but a step beyond that is the question of tone and here too Ireland has skillfully translated Doctorow’s tone to the film medium. Along with the pathos, there is humor in the story and perhaps even more in the film, which no doubt allows an opportunity for humor to be bolstered by visual comedy. There is little to laugh about in Doctorow’s physical characterizations of the ‘husbands,’ but Ireland has added a humorous dimension with his casting of those parts.

Apart from the fine work of Chastain, there are also good performances from Frances Fisher as a lesbian warden released from repression and Chazz Palminteri as Jolene’s temporary Las Vegas savior. Neither does Dermot Mulroney as Uncle Phil fade into the background, but holds his own splendidly in scenes with Chastain.

Without giving anything away, I want to question the director’s choice of shooting the film’s final scene on the infamous Hollywood Boulevard. Easy to understand pairing Jolene’s dreams of one day becoming a movie star with the famous walk of the stars, but larger than that association was for me the street’s well-known nickname, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” And just when we thought the broken parts of Jolene’s odyssey were behind her.

Interested in the E.L. Doctorow short story? It appears in two collections of stories: All the Time in the World and Sweet Land Stories.

1 comment:

  1. Cool. Another film gem to look for on the 300 channels I pay too much for. Surely the Independent Film Channel or Sundance will show it one of these days. Keep rediscovering these overlooked works of art.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America