At the age of 73 years old, Alvin Straight (played by Richard Farnsworth) doesn’t have a driver’s license, is stubborn, living in Iowa, and has had another trip to the doctor’s office for falling down. All he has is his daughter (played by Sissy Spacek) and a lifetime of memories and regrets. When he learns that his estranged brother in Wisconsin has suffered a stroke, Alvin decides he has to visit him, no matter what. So, he gets in a John Deere tractor, hitches a trailer with supplies to the back, and makes a 357-mile trip on a vehicle that can’t go faster than 5 miles an hour. Astonishingly, this is a true story.
Alvin Straight was a real man and took this journey in 1994. Director David Lynch shot The Straight Story in chronological order and on the path that Straight actually took. Anyone familiar with Lynch’s work knows why this sweet little film is a big surprise.
Lynch is one of America’s greatest filmmakers, and his edgy, challenging works include Blue Velvet (frequently referred to as the best film of the 1980s), “Twin Peaks,” Mulholland Dr., and Eraserhead. Lynch is an artist first and a filmmaker second, with a tendency towards the abstract and surreal; his films can be beautiful and horrifying, sometimes at the same moment. These qualities are not on display in The Straight Story, though it is very much a Lynch film, full of visual and character touches consistent with his best work.
Warm hearted, deeply humane, and funny, Lynch’s film is aided by Freddie Francis’ grand cinematography and a lovely score by frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The story is episodic but there are unforgettable passages along the way. An extended sequence in which Alvin encounters a hitchhiker is especially moving.
Farnsworth is perhaps best known as Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. Here, with fire in his eyes, suggesting pain and an unwillingness to give up, he’s giving a career-best turn with a lived-in authenticity. The actor died not long after the film was released, at the age of 80, and had nearly 100 acting credits to his name. His work here has a complexity and vulnerability that is staggering to watch. Spacek is incredible, too, capturing a woman with her own haunted past and a unique manner in which she lives her life.
The film is out of print and isn’t easy to find. Now, it’s on Disney+, perhaps their most random addition to their online library yet. It’s rated G and family-friendly but it’s too “grown-up” and slow-paced for most children (and some adults). Considering the film includes smoking and refers to teenage pregnancy, it would likely be rated PG today. In any case, while it’s arguably the oddest G-rated movie ever released by the Mouse House, it’s a valuable, endearing work about longing in the hearts of older parents. It may be the most unexpected work from Lynch but it’s still one of his best and richest achievements. (On Disney+)
Rated G/112 Min
Essential Comedy: It’s been ten years and The Other Guys is clearly Will Ferrell’s best comedy (OK, next to Elf). What Scream is to horror films, this one is to action movies, as it skewers every expectation we bring to smash ‘em ‘splosion flicks. Alongside Ferrell is a terrific, never-funnier Mark Wahlberg – the two have been teamed up in other movies but this is their smartest, strangest vehicle, as director/co-writer Adam McKay mines comedy that is frequently surreal. (On Netflix)
For the Keiki: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is among the most beautiful animated films you’ll ever see, one of the crowning achievements of Dreamworks Animation and full of stunning sequences. There are some caveats, as it’s narrated by the horse, played by a why-am-I-here Matt Damon (who, at one point, actually says “A horse has gotta do what a horse has gotta do”). There’s also the song score by Bryan Adams, which may be a deal breaker for some (I’m not among his fanbase). If you’re willing to overlook the flaws, the film is a treat. The opening scene alone is unlike any you’ve ever seen attempted in animation. (On Hulu)