Gas Food Lodging (1992): Allison Anders Personal Film Debut

First films, like first books, often are autobiographical and painfully personal.

Allison Anders, the promising new director of Gas Food Lodging, used a lot of her personal background in her stunning 1992 feature debut.

By her own account, Anders has not had an easy life. Raped at the age of twelve, Anders’ stepfather pulled a gun on her three years later, which understandably led to depression, self-destruction, and serious thoughts about killing herself. But she bounced back and after graduating from a junior college went to UCLA’s prestigious film school.

Gas Food Lodging is dominated by women, who play all the central roles. A strong feminist streak runs through the film, though it is not militantly feminist. One of the movie’s achievements is that it touches all the right issues of contemporary women without ever becoming stridently anti-male.

Anders, who adapted to the screen Richard Peck’s novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, tells the story of Nora (Brooke Adams), a working-class waitress who lives in a trailer home with her two daughters. Trudi (Ione Skye) is on the surface a tough, foul-mouthed tramp, but she is actually a victimized sensitive girl. Shade (Fairuza Balk), the younger daughter and film’s heroine, spends her time watching Mexican romantic melodramas. Shade’s dream is to reunite her mother with the father (TV’s James Brolin) she has never met. The life of these women is bleak, but they are not without humor or self-awareness.

Thematically, the film bears some resemblance to Cher’s star vehicle Mermaids (l990), another family melodrama revolving around a single mother and her two daughters. Yet, unlike the superficial, TV-like Mermaids, which had more than its fair share of one-liners and easy jokes, Gas Food Lodging cuts deep into its characters, capturing the essence of these women’s lives. It is to Anders’ credit, that she shows compassion for each of her characters, female and male. Her attention to detail is remarkable–the film contains many fresh observations–there is nothing formulaic about it.

The finely observed picture is not issue-oriented, though you get a sense of racism, both blatant and covert, through Shade’s friendship with a Latino boy, Javier (Jacob Vargas), who works as the local Sunne Cinema’s projectionist.

The three women give natural, effortless performances. Brooke Adams, who showed so much promise in Days of Heaven but has all but disappeared in recent years, is back and she is wonderful. Ione Skye, who played a major role in the disturbing River’s Edge, also gives an impressive performance. The film’s strongest scenes is the one in which she tells a British geologist (Robert Knepper) she is attracted to about her traumatic experience of being gang-raped. But the standout performance is delivered by Fairuza Balk, who played a small part in Valmont, and here comes into her own.

Over the last decade, American movies have exploited the burbs so much that it is refreshing to see a film set in Laramie, New Mexico, an isolated, forsaken town. In its visual style, the movie may remind you of other films set in the Southwest, such as Wim Wenders’ 1984 Paris, Texas, on which Anders worked as a production assistant. The flat horizon, the beautiful red-purple sunsets, the desert winds, the dusty stores all convey the distinctive look and feel of life in the Southwest.

Though the mood is always right and almost every scene rings true, Gas Food Lodging is not without problems. Shade’s voice-over narration is for the most part unnecessary; it just creates distance between the audience and the characters. There is also one false scene, in which Shade Javier and his hearing-impaired mother suddenly bursts out in a Martha Graham kind of dance. Finally, the film’s pace and editing are not all they should be. But considering the fact that it is a debut, made on a small budget, the movie is a triumph.

The film is not restricted to women, but female viewers will relate to Anders’ resonant picture in deeper, more personal ways; the women in the film both contain and face many of anxieties of today’s single women. It is noteworthy that director Anders takes personal pride in the fact that her two real-life daughters are the first generation in her family not to have been sexually abused.

The picture should be a must-see for Vice-President Dan Quayle, who came so strong in his criticism of the TV sit-com Murphy Brown, when Candice Bergen’s career woman gave birth out of the wedlock. Watching this film may perhaps teach him a lesson or two of how people really live.

Gas Food Lodging does the American independent cinema proud: Anders’ gem of a movie has grit, vitality, humor, and honesty.