Reviewed by: Christopher Heyn
Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, Jane Galloway Heitz, Everett McGill | Director: David Lynch | Distributor: Walt Disney
A G-rated inspirational Disney movie from director David Lynch? Who would have thought?
Well, believe it or not, the director of such disturbing and twisted films as “Blue Velvet”, “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway” (not to mention the bizarre TV series “Twin Peaks”) has created not only the most uplifting and compassionate movie of his career, but also one of the finest films of the year.
“The Straight Story” is based on the real-life journey of Alvin Straight, a 73-year old resident of Laurens, Iowa who decided to go visit his brother Lyle in Mount Zion, Wisconsin after learning he suffered a stroke. Problem was, Alvin had no driver’s license and could not drive a car; neither was he willing to be driven, fly, or take a bus. Being a cantankerous old World War II veteran who still mowed his lawn, worked around the house, and smoked cigars against doctor’s orders, Alvin decided to build a trailer, fill it with weeks worth of food and supplies, and hook it up to his lawn mower… with which he planned to drive the 300-plus miles across state lines. Despite Alvin’s age and physical limitations, the uncertain weather, and numerous mechanical problems, he eventually reached his destination.
However, what gives “The Straight Story” its power is not merely the amazing-but-true event that inspired the film, but the reason why Alvin decided to make the trip in the first place. Alvin and his brother Lyle had a falling out and had not spoken in ten years, so when Alvin hears of Lyle’s stroke, it causes Alvin to re-evaluate their behavior towards one another. The lengths Alvin goes in order to achieve reconciliation are inspiring, and through his unorthodox journey, we are reminded of the importance of family relationships, the need for unconditional love, and the power of forgiveness. Christians, starved for quality movies that uplift moral virtues, will rejoice after viewing this film.
Veteran character actor Richard Farnsworth is given the role of a lifetime in Alvin Straight, and gives a luminous, Oscar-worthy performance that holds the entire film together. Sissy Spacek plays his daughter, a woman that is assumed to be mentally deficient because of a strong speech impediment, but is actually smarter than she appears. Short of Harry Dean Stanton, who plays Lyle, and “Twin Peaks” veteran Everett McGill, who plays the farm equipment salesman who sells Alvin the lawnmower he uses to make his journey, every other actor in the cast is an unknown, but director Lynch manages to pull heartfelt performances from all of them.
Because of its G rating, “The Straight Story” contains nothing remotely offensive, but is still in many ways a typical David Lynch movie. The film has its share of oddball characters, a couple of scenes that make you wonder whether to shudder or laugh, and long, slow camera movements that hover over minor details. The ever-obsessive Lynch even filmed “The Straight Story” along the exact same route traversed by the real Alvin Straight. Still, the compassion that Lynch has for his characters clearly shines through, and the film’s messages are delivered subtly and gently, without preaching. The spare but sweeping musical score by long-time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is another notable highlight.
While younger children may be bored by the film’s gentle pacing, “The Straight Story” is a wonderful film for anyone, regardless of age, making this a definite must-see for the entire family. Let’s hope it gets the attention it deserves come Oscar time.
Year of Release—1999