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"THE STRAIGHT STORY"
(1999) (Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A 73-year-old man sets out on a several hundred-mile trip on his riding lawn mower to see his sick, estranged brother.
PLOT:
Alvin Straight (RICHARD FARNSWORTH) is a 73-year-old man who hasn't spoken to his brother, Lyle (HARRY DEAN STANTON) in more than ten years due to harsh words spoken at their last meeting. A simple, but proud and stubborn man, Alvin lives with his mentally slow adult daughter, Rose (SISSY SPACEK), and hates that his health is progressively deteriorating.

When he gets a call that Lyle has had a stroke, Alvin decides to swallow his pride and go and visit him. The only problem is, Lyle lives in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, several hundred miles from Alvin's home in Laurens, Iowa, and due to his failing eyesight, Alvin has neither a car nor a driver's license.

Not letting that or his bad hips deter him, the WWII veteran decides he'll simply drive his riding lawn mower through the farmlands and across the Mississippi. When his first attempt fails due to mechanical problems, Alvin takes his limited cash and buys a 1966 John Deere mower. With a stocked trailer hitched behind it, Alvin sets off.

Traveling at five miles an hour and camping out overnight, Alvin's trip soon turns into a several week odyssey where he meets various people who touch or are touched by his aged wisdom. They include Crystal (ANASTASIA WEBB), a young and pregnant runaway, a woman (BARBARA ROBERTSON) with an unfortunate penchant for hitting deer on her commute, a middle-aged couple, Danny (JAMES CADA) and Darla Riordon (SALLY WINGERT) who help him when his mower breaks down, and Verlyn Heller (WILEY HARKER), a fellow WWII vet.

Proudly refusing rides from anyone he meets and as the weeks of fall pass by as he ever so slowly nears Mt. Zion, Alvin not only hopes that his brother is still okay, but that they can reconcile their differences and spend some time together as they once did, staring up in into the star-filled night sky.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
In 1994, a 73-year-old man, with bad eyes and even worse hips, rode his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Although that several hundred mile trek perhaps sounds like the efforts of some old eccentric or perhaps even a publicity stunt to promote some product, company or cause, the truth is that the senior citizen did it just to see his sick brother.

As amazing as that long and arduous journey was, it's matched by the fact that the director of such offbeat and often bizarre titles as "Blue Velvet" and TV's "Twin Peaks" has taken it, given it his own unique spin and turned it into a sweet and touching, G rated Disney picture.

While anything less than PG is usually synonymous with programming aimed squarely at kids, it's doubtful many children will want to see this old-fashioned, non-animated recounting of Alvin Straight's lawnmower journey. On the other hand, adults -- and probably the older the better -- will likely be touched by this leisurely paced, but completely engrossing and enjoyable little film.

Chronologically shot along the exact route that Straight himself traveled, the film tells the sort of tale that's rarely seen nowadays where most everyone is nice and a true villain isn't to be found for hundreds of miles in any direction around the protagonist. Certainly not complicated when viewed in a superficial sense, the film is an odyssey-like story where a man touches and is touched by those he encounters on his personal journey.

As such, this all too easily could have been mishandled and turned into a mawkish or overly pretentious experience with the protagonist being portrayed as an all-knowing and near mystical guru of sorts. Yet, and to their collective credit, director David Lynch and first-time screenwriters John Roach and Mary Sweeney keep Straight completely and realistically grounded and always believable.

Of course, to pull that off, the filmmakers needed a strong performer inhabiting the character and they got that and more from Richard Farnsworth ("The Natural," "Misery"). A former stuntman turned actor, Farnsworth's career has spanned more than six decades allowing him to work with a wide variety of other performers and notable directors, and even earned him an Oscar nomination for "Comes a Horseman." While I'm not familiar with most of his work, it would be hard to imagine him delivering a better performance than he does here.

Expressing more sincere emotion with a look from his moist, but wise and still spark-filled eyes than many actors can muster with their entire bodies, Farnsworth gently but firmly takes the viewer by the hand and the leads them along on his journey.

Supporting performances, while clearly falling into Farnsworth's shadow, are also strong. From Sissy Spacek ("Blast From the Past," "Coal Miner's Daughter") as his wiser than she outwardly appears, live-in daughter and James Cada ("Grumpier Old Men") as a friendly stranger to Wiley Harker ("Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead") as a fellow WWII vet, the acting is above par and nicely complements Farnsworth's work.

That also holds true for Lynch and his technical crew. While most of his previous efforts -- on both the big and small screen -- have liberally and near literally oozed fully resonant ambiance (often to accentuate some eerie or bizarre proceedings), the similar effect here is wonderfully applied.

Perfectly pacing the film to capture the slower rural lifestyle, not to mention Alvin's less than speedy journey, Lynch lets scenes and their rhythms slowly, but deliberately develop. While that might sound boring, it's anything but. As capably capturing the essence of rural America as any Norman Rockwell painting, Lynch paints his own rich and completely believable canvas.

Of course it doesn't hurt that previous Lynch collaborators, cinematographer Freddie Francis and composer Angelo Badalamenti have signed on with this project. From Francis' sweeping and gorgeous photography to Badalamenti's moving score, the film's technical merits are first-rate and only add to the overall warmth the film so ably exudes.

From the little bits of humor sprinkled throughout and the old-fashioned storytelling narratives that are both compelling and emotionally engaging, to the wonderfully nuanced performances and Lynch's masterful direction, this is an all around superb little film that we highly recommend. As such, "The Straight Story" rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed October 18, 1999 / Posted October 22, 1999


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