Thursday, February 25, 2010

Indie Road Trip: The Yellow Handkerchief

Brett Hanson weathered the storm of Katrina from the relative safety of his prison cell. Released after six years, he tentatively faces his new life, unsure if his wife will take him back, or whether she even should. Hoping to stay out of trouble on the trip home, he logically hitches a ride with two troubled teenagers in Udayan Prasad’s The Yellow Handkerchief (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Hanson is not really a violent man. He just seems to be his own worst natural disaster. Unfortunately, he is a repeat offender, who was probably fortunate to have made parole. He was definitely lucky to have won over his wife May, considering how rocky their courtship was, as the audience sees in multiple flashbacks. Though not entirely comfortable in the role, he acts as an unlikely de facto chaperon for his traveling companions, while ruminating on all his past mistakes.

Gordy is a squirrely kid, who is on the road because his family does not want to deal with him (and it’s hard to blame them). Martine is a popular high school student, who heads south in the hopes that her absentee parents will eventually notice she is missing. While Hanson closely guards his own secrets, she feels an instinctive connection with the world weary ex-con.

What could have easily degenerated into a parade of indie road movie clich├ęs is truly elevated by William Hurt’s powerful but admirably understated performance. True to his character’s strong, silent reserve, he still clearly conveys the lifetime’s worth of pain and regret Hanson carries around with him. Likewise, Maria Bello projects the right vulnerability and hardscrabble dignity as May. Kristen Stewart, a tweener superstar from the Twilight films, is actually a pleasant surprise, giving a mature and complex performance as the needy Martine. However, Eddie Redmayne’s Gordy is annoying beyond any reasonable credibility. Whenever he is on screen, you would think Yellow is an extended commercial for Ritalin.

Adapting Pete Hamill’s early 1970’s short story to post-Katrina Louisiana, Prasad capitalizes on the Pelican State’s atmospheric environment, but never really embraces the distinctive local music (Cajun, Zydeco, jazz, blues, swampy R&B), opting instead for a conventionally cinematic soundtrack. Sensitively lensed by cinematographer Chris Menges, it all looks right, but sounds kind of dull.

As the odd trio speeds down towards the Gulf Coast, Yellow hurtles towards an unapologetically emotional payoff. Yes, it is absolutely manipulative, but it works thanks to the grit and honesty of Hurt’s performance, which could even be considered Oscar worthy, if it were not in an indie movie released in the month of February. He makes the film what it is—ultimately a modest, nice little film about human frailty. It opens tomorrow in New York at the City Cinemas 1-2-3 and the Regal Union Square.

(Photo Credit: Eric Lee / Samuel Goldwyn Films)