Paper Hearts

A light feminist streak informs Rod McCall's feature directorial debut, Paper Hearts, a modest, occasionally touching family drama about the effects of a marriage breakup. Despite a dominating performance by Sally Kirkland and good cast, this static picture is marred by uneven script and lack of vital direction. Commercial outlook is middling for an indie that due to its subject matter and characters will probably have stronger appeal among female viewers.

Though McCall's script was written several years ago, inevitable comparisons will be made with Alison Anders's far superior 1992 Gas Food Lodging. Both films are set in a New Mexico small town, both are dominated by women, and both are imbued with distinctly female sensibility.

Kirkland stars as Jenny Stevenson, an attractive middle-aged femme, separated from her scoundrel womanizer of a husband, Henry (James Brolin), who walked out leaving her with a mountain of debt. Struggling to assert a new identity and build a new life for herself, Jenny tries to hold onto the house she inherited from her family, which is now on the verge of foreclosure.

The family's disparate members reunite for one stormy and fateful weekend, during which Jenny's youngest daughter Kat (Renee Estevez) gets married. Henry claims that he came to the wedding to see his “little girl,” but in actuality he is scheming to get the house for himself. Jenny's oldest daughter, Sam (Pamela Gidley), a music student in New York, also shows up.

Scripter McCall uses the wedding as a device to examine the two intertwined issues of his melodrama: the painful marital dissolution for a woman who is clearly still in love with her husband, and the generational rift between mother and daughter. In her attempt to achieve independence, Jenny, a prototype of a woman who can't exist without a man, is contrasted with Sam, her sophisticated and sexually assertive daughter, who represents a more liberated type of woman.

Some of the film's motifs and persona are familiar from other movies. Jenny is a kindred soul and respectable successor to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The link between the two films becomes more evident through the presence of Kris Kristofferson who, as Jenny's cowboy lover, repeats the same kind of role he played in the Scorsese's 1974 film, the virile yet sensitive man willing to accept women on their own terms.

McCall acquits himself better as writer than director. Pic's freshest observations pertain to the generational gap, most notably the notion of the young teaching their elders how to come to terms with reality. The narrative entertains perhaps all too briefly the idea of female bonding, specifically one between Jenny and Patsy (Laura Johnson), Henry's wealthy stockbroker mistress, dumped in a motel when they arrived in town.

The big climactic scene, in which Brolin is exposed by the women in his life, is excessively melodramatic, and contains an unnecessary nude scene by Kirkland that is borderline risible.

The moody, often somber film consists of brief interactional scenes, usually confrontations between two characters, though the dialogue is not theatrical. McCall offers a better understanding of the women, endowing his story with a coherent female point of view. Brolin's role remains a type, as McCall fails to provide insights into his behavior other than suggesting he is an irresponsible ladykiller. As a result, the women in the film, and the actresses who play them, come off much better than the men.

As helmer, McCall favors naturalistic acting, allowing each of his performers a few good scenes to showcase their distinct talents. Sally Kirkland, who also makes her debut as executive producer, gives her most forceful and modulated performance since her Oscar-nominated Anna. The supporting cast members all hit their marks, but the beautiful Pamela Gidley registers particularly strongly in the complex, pivotal role of Sam.

Technical credits are proficient in most departments. Lenser Barry Markowitz captures both the mythic force and beauty of the West in his imagery of this unique landscape with its varying lights, sounds, and even smells. However, Curtis Edge's editing is inconsistent: some scenes run too long, while others are truncated. Too episodic, the narrative doesn't flow smoothly; scenes always remain scenes.
Expressing a regional flavor, Paper Hearts is for better or worse inspirational and life-affirming. And it's decidedly uneven: In its good moments, the film approximates a lyrical poem to the West's indomitable spirit, but in its weakest, it's just a routine family melodrama.