The Zookeeper's Wife
Has many lovely and moving moments but fails to capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors.
There are lot of characters coming to terms with things in "A Country Called Home." There's a single father whose ex-wife is an alcoholic and drug addict. The two married and had a child just out of high school, and now he's working long hours to provide for his son and his mother, who is also an alcoholic. The mother just lost her common-law husband—if one even can call their relationship that, considering that she's still married to another man—after he suffered a stroke as a result of decades of heavy drinking.
The protagonist of "A Country Called Home" is the deceased man's daughter. She left her father as soon as she was able to do so, and now she has come to Texas from her home in Los Angeles to lay to rest the man she has spent most of her life hating.
The movie also throws in a transgender singing cowboy who, in his first scene, gets a beer bottle thrown at his head for daring to try to entertain people at a local dive bar. Continuing the theme of people slowly but surely killing themselves, the troubadour's mother, whose first appearance is in a hospital bed suffering from a diabetic coma, is eating her way to an early death on account of a diet consisting mainly of unhealthy food.
The easy criticism here is that the screenplay by director Anna Axster (her debut feature) and Jim Beggarly provides too many characters, but that's not quite right. It's clear that Axster and Beggarly have put some thought into how these characters are connected in ways that go beyond the informal familial bonds that tie them together.
Ellie (Imogen Poots) is the daughter of the deceased patriarch. She hasn't seen or spoken to her father in years, and her older brother (Shea Whigham) has all but written off their old man. In his view, their father is dead, but "they just haven't gotten around to burying him yet" (the movie eventually reveals why his children despise him, although it's not too much of a surprise). When her dad's "wife" Amanda (Mary McCormack) calls to let her know that her father has died, Ellie travels to Texas to take care of the funeral arrangements.
There, she meets her unofficial stepmother, a woman who seems perfectly polite and accommodating, until she is confronted with even the slightest inconvenience to her daily routine of heavy drinking. Her son Jack (Ryan Bingham) tries to keep the family afloat, and it has become more difficult since his mother and Ellie's father moved in with Jack and his son Tommy (Presley Jack Bowen).
Through Amanda, the screenplay provides an idea of what Ellie's father might have been like, and by way of Jack, Axster and Beggarly offer a glimpse of what Ellie's life could have been like if she hadn't left her own family situation. Jack is essentially trapped by obligation in the same way Ellie was when she was younger. There's something oppressively cyclical about these relationships. The connections stand on their own, which makes it unfortunate that Jack eventually becomes a potential romantic interest for Ellie, who has an uncaring boyfriend (Josh Helman) at home. The development undermines the more interesting thematic connection between the two characters.
That brings us to Reno (Mackenzie Davis), the transgender singer. He and Ellie become fast friends, and while the character's presence here doesn't seem to fit at first, the reasoning becomes apparent. He's yet another character held back from his potential by the self-destructive nature of a loved one. Reno is the most fascinating character of the bunch, partially because he seems relatively out of place and also because he is the one character who appears to have the desire and the capacity to escape his circumstances.
These characters collide and coalesce in their shared misery. Axster and Beggarly have a solid grasp on the emotional links between these characters, but there's a growing sense that the screenplay is charting their paths toward a specific resolution. The first time we see Ellie's father's station wagon, for example, it's almost as if Axster is setting up the movie's inevitable final shot.
The third act in particular becomes an awkward mixture of broad comedy and pathos. It's an intentional shift in tone to bring the story to its more hopeful conclusion, but the screenplay overcompensates. A memorial service becomes an all-out brawl. Reno gets revenge on a prejudiced storeowner by means of an elaborate prank, which offers nothing for these characters or the story except a brief interlude before everything falls into place. Poor June Squibb, who plays Ellie's biological grandmother in a tender performance, becomes the butt of an unnecessary pratfall that leads to the punch line of a running joke about Ellie constantly finding herself at the local hospital. In general, the performances are fine, especially the ones from McCormack and Davis, who, respectively, turn potentially unsympathetic or gimmicky roles into characters with more depth than we might anticipate.
The central problem with "A Country Called Home" is neither the performances nor even the characters. It's the transparent ways in which the movie conjures easy resolutions to issues that it otherwise does a fine job convincing us are not so simple.
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