Saturday, September 22, 2007

BFF: Rails & Ties

... And on my third day at the Boston Film Festival, I finally saw something on film. I know this doesn't bug a lot of other people, but that single pixel that was lit up on the projector was driving me nuts.

Rials & Ties

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #14 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

The more one thinks about the plot to Rails & Ties, the creepier it becomes. It's already about a kid bonding with the man who killed his mother (albeit accidentally), and while good stories about ad hoc families forged from tragedy aren't impossible to create, there's something unnerving about how temporary this one is from the start. Director Alison Eastwood should be commended, then, for keeping this from being completely overpowering.

Davey Danner (Miles Heizer) and Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) both love trains - Tom operates the line that runs between Los Angels and Seattle; Davey's model engine seldom leaves his hands - and both have a very sick woman in their lives. For Tom, it's his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), whose breast cancer has spread to her bones; Davey's mother Laura (Bonnie Root) is all but bedridden. They meet when Laura tries to commit suicide by stopping her car on the tracks in front of Tom's train. Davey survives, but Tom is suspended pending an investigation. Megan is about to leave Tom to spend her last days in San Francisco when Davey shows up at their door, demanding to know why he didn't stop and winds up sticking around.

Writer Micky Levy seems to take a fairly dim view of most of his adult characters. Tom is the most obviously off-putting - he keeps working even though his wife is dying, when he's suspended and can't do that, he still doesn't go with her on her trip, he snarls that he didn't do anything wrong when Davey looks at him accusingly. Laura is overbearingly religious, with the kind of twisted beliefs where including her son in her suicide makes perfect sense. Even Megan is portrayed as rather selfish - sure, you can argue that someone with a month to live is entitled to be so, but it's Tom who stands to face the consequences if anyone finds out about the kid she insisted they let stay with them. Parenthood is a long-term commitment, so Megan taking a kid who has just lost his mother in so that she can have the experience of filling that role potentially much worse than the piano she orders.

It still works out, though. It works especially well when you consider that the film spends most of its time between events, watching Tom, Megan, and Davey interact while waiting for Tom's hearing. There's occasional cuts to Marin Hinkle as the children's services worker trying to find find Davey, reminding us that what the Starks are doing is probably not all right with the world outside, even if it does seem to be helping them somewhat. Alison Eastwood doesn't quite have the sure hand of her father - she tends to push her characters' anguish forward, where Clint tends to back off and let the audience contemplate it - she does share his tendency to let the cast tell the story.

That cast is obviously a strength; Kevin Bacon is particularly good. Tom is angry at the world and Bacon doesn't shrink from making his character come off as a prick. He's good about only revealing Tom's better qualities in stages, rather than being too eager to show us right off the bat that he's a good guy underneath everything else. Marcia Gay Harden similarly avoids making Megan into too much of a saint, but still manages to earn the audience's affection. Miles Heizer does a better job than many child actors at making us believe that Davey is really as clever as the story requires him to be while mostly having him play as a kid whom the adult world can still catch by surprise.

Rails & Ties is in some ways the serious-drama equivalent to a genre film "programmer"; it doesn't break new ground and doesn't execute so exceptionally well as to be a must-see on those merits. It's got some good performances, and the details are interesting enough so that it doesn't feel like just a retread.

Also at EFC.

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