The standout surprise on the slow burning melodrama “The Good Life” never appears on-screen. It has more to do with its origins. Writer/director Steve Berra is a top skateboarder turned self-taught filmmaker but “The Good Life,” his solid debut effort, has little to do with skateboarding and takes place far away from the Southern California skate parks where Berra made a career for himself. The film is a coming-of-age tale set in Lincoln, Nebraska, portrayed as a grim town of vacant lots, shuttered buildings, sidewalk drug dealers and deep poverty, all accented by overcast skies.
Jason Prayer (Mark Webber) is a twenty-something struggling to help his widowed mother pay the bills but it’s not easy despite his two jobs. When not pumping gas, he works for Gus (Harry Dean Stanton), the elderly owner of a rundown cinema that shows classic films. Zooey Deschanel, something of a Sundance regular, is the pretty woman who comes to the theater one night and brings much-needed love into Jason’s grim life.
“The Good Life” is not about a love for classic cinema and shares more in common with one of Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” photographs than the small-town classic “The Last Picture Show.” With “The Good Life,” Berra has made a movie about the desire to be someplace else and to pretend to be somebody else and what it lacks in originality it compensates with polish and a strong lead performance.
Webber brings the film a humanist grounding, something fleshy to support the film’s images of beautiful squalor. As the pretty stranger, Deschanel takes full advantage of her greatest asset, the most expressive eyes in film. It’s worth noting that their best scene together is not one of bedroom intimacy but a conversation on a swing set as they share past hurts. Actually, “The Good Life” is a director’s picture and Berra and his crew, especially cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet, make every image matter.
Of course perfection seldom occurs with the debut films, it’s why we continue to love Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” and “The Good Life” suffers from one too many lulls and a need for stronger character development. Understandably, “The Good Life” is a deliberately paced drama and needs to be due to the cloud of despair that hangs over the film and the solemn nature of its story. There are few surprises, especially at the end. But “The Good Life” is artful, serious and worthwhile, something you can only say about impressive filmmaking debuts.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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