The Straight Story (1999)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Director – David Lynch
Screenplay – John Roach
Screenplay – Mary Sweeney
Producer – Mary Sweeney
Editor – Mary Sweeney
Producer – Neal Edelstein
Executive Producer – Pierre Edelman
Director of Photography – Freddie Francis
Music Orchestrations – Angelo Badalamenti
Executive Producer – Michael Polaire
111 Minutes. Rated G.
STARRING: Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose), James Cada (Danny Riordan), Jane Heitz (Dorothy), Everett McGill (Tom The Dealer), Jennifer Edwards (Brenda), Barbara E. Robertson (Deer Woman), John Farley (Thorvald), Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle)

The Straight Story is a small miracle on the big screen.

David Lynch, who has cooked up so many movies about sick and twisted people doing sick and twisted things, has always had a keen radar for stories of spiritual conflict in seemingly ordinary circumstances. His heroes are always flawed, and they often fail. His villains have fascinating characteristics that keep them human and make us believe they might be redeemable. The Straight Story is no exception in that its central character has many weaknesses, and so do the others he meets along the way.

The difference here is that Lynch has chosen to focus on the good in these folks, instead of the perverse. The result is an uplifting and rare experience, a movie that demonstrates the values of savoring the day before it passes us by, and exhorts us to seek reconciliation with those who might be estranged from us.

Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, a 73 year-old veteran who has not spoken with his brother in ten years. Alvin knows his days are numbered. His body is failing him and he can hardly walk. He has only his daughter (Sissy Spacek in a courageous and humble performance) to care for him. She has physical afflictions of her own, one of which is a dreadful stutter. But she does have a sharp memory for details. In addition to this, Alvin has no car, a creaky old house, and the ghosts of war and family trauma hiding in every corner.

But Alvin is not joyless. Here is a rare movie hero, an elderly softspoken man who can hardly move, but who shows us through his eyes a world filled with generosity and unexpected kindness. As we settle in for 90 minutes with Alvin, we realize how exciting and beautiful a thunderstorm can be. We learn how much there is to see when you drive at five to ten miles an hour instead of 60. And we discover just how many wonderful people there are along the road that we usually never even bother to give a “hello.”

It may not seem like much to most people, but the task that Alvin gives himself requires a Herculean effort. As saddled as he is with infirmities, he’s on a mission to give up a grudge and go make up with his brother, who has just suffered a stroke. Without a car and without much money, the only way Alvin has to travel out and find his brother is to make an epic journey from state to state… on a riding lawn mower.

The film is based on a true story. I don’t know how much is historical truth, how much fiction, but truth about life, love, and forgiveness rings out loud and clear in every episode of this story. For long stretches of the movie I forgot about the goal of Alvin’s mission. In fact, I was almost disappointed when the story reached its resolution. I was enjoying so much the drive and the surprises along the way that I hated to see it end.

On the way home from the film, my wife and I remarked on how unusually sunny was this January day. We slowed down the car, and enjoyed the light.

For that, I thank David Lynch.

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One Response to “The Straight Story (1999)”

  1. The Looking Closer Film Review Archive « Looking Closer at the Movies Says:

    [...] of the Clones Star Wars, Episode Three – Revenge of the Sith Story of the Weeping Camel, The (2004) Straight Story, The (2001) Stuart Little 2 (2002) Sunshine State (2002) Superman Returns (2006) Super Size Me (2006) Sweet and [...]

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