Sunday, February 23, 2014

Watercolor Postcards Review

Watercolor Postcards follows one small girl's family in a quiet and pleasant story that smartly avoids feeling like it's candy-coated. Without ever becoming maudlin - or an update of What's Eating Gilbert Grape - you see how the entire town is one child's family and support group. And it's a good thing that little Cotton has so many relatives, then, because the movie starts with the death of her mom.

The mother's slow suicide-by-booze forces the return of Cotton's older sister, Sunny. The younger sibling makes heart-aching strides to ensure that her new home life is more stable, while Sunny gets used to being back home and taking care of someone else.

Above all, Watercolor Postcards is a study of small-town life, as well as the hopes and worries of the people living in that setting. This indie picture moves with a slow pace after the tragic beginning, letting us get to know Cotton, Sunny, the locals at the town's over-sized bar, and the other people who touch all their lives – especially Butch, who is Cotton's grown-up friend.

One of the most pleasant things about WP is that it neatly shows how important all these people are to each other, and how little Cotton is the only one who really sees it. She's practically the movie's Cassandra, telling everyone what's going to happen as if she had a pipeline to the divine.

At the same time, the viewer witnesses the unfolding romance between Butch and Sunny. It's not over-played at all, developing gradually, and we get to learn a bit about the couple, both separately and together.

Where so many movies like this try for a complex structure or aim to create some chain reaction or build to a secret that connects all the roles, Watercolor is content to let you observe an insanely tumultuous month (or so) in the lives of its players. Overall, this aspect of the picture is handled with grace and confidence.

So what are the flaws and weaknesses here? The last major event that happens is unfortunate, and may annoy some viewers because it's a dumb way for a bad thing to occur (seriously, no rural person would attempt that fateful act during a storm). But that last complaint is probably more of a personal response than a solid cinematic critique.

The bigger problem, then, is that several plots don't get quite enough attention or progress just a little too quickly. One character's addiction plot seems to comes out of nowhere, and is resolved a bit too quickly. A stalled career is revealed, but not addressed again. One entire subplot packs on abuse, receiving precious screen time, but has no proper resolution... Is it just there to add more pathos?

Similarly, Conrad Goode, WP’s screenwriter, is not a perfect actor. Goode actually does very well, coming off as appropriately (and commendably) naturalistic, but once or twice a line feels just a touch stiff, or flat, or spoken too softly. I can't complain much, as the writer/actor does solid work here... And yet I can't ignore it, either.

What always stands out, however, is the acting. Bailee Madison, as Cotton, is unbelievably good in the central role. Her character is precious and precocious, without ever coming off as if Ms. Madison is trying to act. rom this role alone, you can tell that she has a bright future in the film industry...

It helps, of course, that Bailee gets great support, and that the peripheral characters are very well cast. Ned Bellamy's frivolous townie nearly forms a Greek Chorus with John C. McGinley's easy and realistic presence; both men really help to ground the picture. The same can be said of the other familiar face who exists on the edges of the story: Jonathan Banks. His role is murkier, yet far more involved with the developing plots.

Working back to the central figures, Laura Bell Bundy (as Sunny) and Conrad Goode (as Butch) work very well with everyone. Bundy does a fine job of conveying Sunny's worry and sadness, as well as her subdued alarm at Cotton's efforts to push her sister to stay with her and form a real, healthy family. I had never seen LBB before - she's on several TV shows that I don't watch - but she's asked to do a lot here, and she does it all effortlessly.

Less is demanded of Goode - he's almost more of a lead supporting figure - but he neatly portrays an everyman who is a perfect modern cowboy. It's no slight to his acting to note that Butch is relatively easy to read - a confident man with a kind heart that's been tempered by loss, disappointment, and loneliness. And, honestly, that stiffness I wrote of before makes sense, as Texans can have a flat affect in their voice - and even I don't always read my writing aloud as perfectly as I can recite inside my head.

What stuck with me so strongly was the first big event of the picture. It's a preventable tragedy, although no one tries to stop it. And, at the same time, the larger story is about a whole town in a slow, nearly-unattended collapse. While the fine points of this subplot are relayed by the supporting cast, the theme itself is repeated through almost every character - they all demonstrate people whose lives are falling apart.

Regardless of any real or perceived flaws, I had a good time watching Watercolor Postcards, and I never looked at my watch, despite its 2 hour running time. I genuinely liked seeing these characters interact and learning more about them, and director Rajeev Dassani captures everything well. The picture got me invested in its players and its narrative, and that is far more important than the few flaws it displayed.

The strong cast allowed the writer and director to tell a nice, turbulent, realistic tale about life in a declining Texan town. I thought the ending was quite good, not artificial in the least, and that it mirrored the movie’s beginning nicely. I also really liked the closing credit sequence. Ultimately, I was very happy that I chose to review this film. I receive many film screeners each month, and many narrative indie films are not as enjoyable as this one...

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