February 21, 2009

All Roads Lead Home

Vivien Cardone attempts to save condemned animals in 'All Roads Lead Home'It's easy to find reasons to dismiss All Roads Lead Home. Shot in Kansas City by a small independent producer on a shoestring budget, it bears many of the unfortunate hallmarks of the direct-to-video family genre: cinematography that's only a step or two up from amateur video, a cloying and overly literal score and a screenplay full of overly familiar archetypes and cringeworthy dialog. None of that changes the fact that it's an incredibly hard film to dislike.

The story centers around Belle Lawlor, the daughter of a dog catcher and the granddaughter of a horse breeder. This resulted in a childhood surrounded by animals. She loves them as much as her mother does. But when her mother dies, very early in the film, that love causes her regular heartache. One of her father's responsibilities is to euthanize the animals that require it. Culling the inferior offspring is a necessary part of her grandfather's business model.

Though the film pulls back from the worst of its punches (don't expect your kids to be blindsided by an Old Yeller ending), it doesn't shy away from tackling the difficult questions it raises. The film is emphatically promotes alternatives to euthanasia, but recognizes that there are times when euthanasia is necessary. Belle's grandfather indulges her desire to save all of the animals near the end of the film, but is frank that he can't do it forever. Belle's father is equally frank about the circumstances of her mother's death. At the hospital, he repeated refused to sign off on a do-not-resuscitate order. But after 39 hours of trauma, his wife died anyway. In the end, he wished he'd done the thing his daughter had resentfully assumed he'd done. I appreciated that the film respected its young audience enough to think they could handle dealing with these issues.

Aside from a few local supporting actors, the performances are a step above what you normally get from movies with this kind of budget. Vivien Cardone had years of experience playing a grieving daughter on "Everwood" and it no doubt helped her with the formidable burden of carrying the film on her shoulders. Peter Coyote brings an incredible warmth to the grandfather, essential for a character that must share many horrible truths. I've long considered Jason London one of Hollywood's most wooden working actors, so I was very surprised with his convincing portrayal of Belle's dad. As written Evan Parke's character seems dangerously close to the Magic Negro stereotype, but his execution helps to counter that. Patton Oswalt got the best written character of the bunch and makes the most of it. Vanessa Branch got the most poorly scripted character of the bunch but makes the most it too. I don't know if it's because he so close to the end, but the late great Peter Boyle brings an entirely different energy than we expect from him for his last on-screen role. His inn-keeper character is either a little crazy, or wants everybody to think so.

While the film snob in me found plenty to sneer at, again and again I kept wishing more family films had its convictions. For all of their gloss and technical accomplishment, most Hollywood family films are ultimately pandering diversions. If When I was in the targeted age range, All Roads Lead Home would have given me a lot to consider. And given the choice, wouldn't you rather your kids watch a humble little movie that engages their minds instead of a flashy blockbuster that merely dazzles their senses?(**½)

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