Gas Food Lodging: Personal Feminist Film

If Allison Anders’ screen work had been as interesting as her provocative offscreen persona, she would have become the most prominent contemporary female director. Unfortunately, it is not. With all the attention surrounding her career and a McArthur Foundation Genius Award, Anders remains an uneven filmmaker, with only one satisfying film to her credit, her debut, Gas Food Lodging.

Anders’ work, however, is personal. Her first, co-directed feature, Border Radio (1988), about the punk scene in L.A., was done while she “partied and smoked and listened to Fairport Convention with a bunch of guys.” Displaying grit, vitality, and honesty, Gas Food Lodging (1992), the story of a single mother bringing up two teenage daughters in a dusty New Mexico town, drew on Anders’ experience as a single mom. For Mi Vida Loca (1993), she looked no further than her Echo Park neighborhood and its Hispanic girl gangs.

Adapted from Richard Peck’s novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, Gas Food Lodging is the story of Nora (Brooke Adams), a working-class mom who lives in a trailer with her two daughters. Trudi (Ione Skye) seems to be a tough, foul-mouthed tramp, but she’s essentially a victimized girl. Shade (Fairuza Balk), her younger sister, who spends her time watching Mexican melodramas in a local moviehouse, dreams of reuniting her mother with the father she has never met.

The film cuts deep into the dreary life and anxieties of single women, but, for all the bleakness, they are not devoid of humor or awareness that life could be better. With a tight focus on the women’s relations with one another, the film depicts thankless jobs, trailer homes–and yearning for something to happen. “I don’t think anyone rescues anyone else in this film,” Anders said, “The men change nothing for these women.”

Perceiving the movie as less about sex or love than the search for intimacy, Anders claimed she “could have easily made this intimacy come from women.” But she cannot: Impossible men are an issue for Anders, on screen and off, as she confessed: “I don’t feel safe with men a lot of the times because inevitably I’m going to be made to feel like I’m crazy.”

After the film, Anders received numerous letters from teenage mothers who wanted to connect with one of their own. “I fell in love with it,” said Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise’s scripter, who was a juror at Sundance where Anders’ film premiered. “I was jealous of it in the best possible sense.” Blessed by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle with a Best First Film Award, Gas Food Lodging is by far Anders’ best film.