Do not underestimate Katie Holmes. The quietly tenacious “Dawson’s Creek” alum has seen her career interrupted by the ultimate triple whammy of disasters that can befall a rising Hollywood starlet: motherhood, Scientology (by proxy), and a flat performance in a Batman movie. And yet — long after most people had written her off — Holmes is still blazing her own trail. It hasn’t always been pretty (remember her part in “Jack and Jill?”), but the scrappy actress has clawed her way back towards credibility — or at least towards visibility — with small parts in a wide variety of projects. From the esoteric Chekhov update “Days and Nights” to the misbegotten YA adaptation of “The Giver,” Holmes has refused to settle into expectations.
The hits have been few and far between, but her screen persona has slowly become even more interesting and inscrutable than her private life, which continues to be defined by its most bizarre chapter. In recent months, a palpable degree of passion has even begun to bubble beneath her work; her fevered performance as a manic-depressive poet in “Touched With Fire” burned with an intensity unlike anything she had displayed before. Now, after years of hesitantly peeking out from behind the curtain, Holmes is taking a giant leap into the spotlight. By stepping behind the camera, she’s putting herself out there like never before.
Closely adapted from Annie Weatherwax’s 2014 novel of the same name and unfolding like a recessionary remake of “Tumbleweeds,” “All We Had” introduces its nomadic heroines as they get ready to blow from one town to the next. We meet them on the move, as Rita Carmichael (Holmes) hustles her precocious 14-year-old daughter Ruthie (Stefania Owen, a dead ringer for her director) into their busted red jalopy. They’ve done this before, and they’ll do it again. It’s a familiar pattern: Some guy in some town will see Rita as a wounded bird who’d be easy to cage, he’ll make her promises that he has no intention of keeping, and he’ll give Ruthie the faintest glimmer of a stable life. And then it will all go to shit. “My mom was better at loving men than choosing them,” Ruthie will later observe via the film’s cringingly precious voiceover track.
They’re vagabonds. And, when the situation calls for it, they’re also grifters. After scarfing down some breakfast in a small town diner run by a big-hearted man named Marty (Richard Kind) and his trans niece, Pam (Eve Lindley), Rita and Ruthie do what they do best: they run away. That’s when their car gives up the ghost.
And so Rita begins to waitress at the diner in order to pay for the pancakes she stole. The situation is a win for everyone, and it isn’t long before she and her daughter have moved out of their car and into the restaurant’s back room. A local real estate agent (Mark Consuelos) takes a shine to the young mother, entices her with a subprime loan, and sets her up in a recently foreclosed house. Rita and Ruthie begin to dig some roots. And then the economy collapses and — once again — it all goes to shit.
“All We Had” is a gentle movie that never achieves enough momentum to take flight — this is, after all, a story about two people who are desperately searching for a place where they can afford to stand still. The screenplay, by Josh Boone and Jill Killington, is a patchy work of adaptation that’s far more effective in broad strokes than it is when it comes to the granular details. Pam, for example, is a wonderful character whose gender identity is handled with a refreshing degree of respect; she identifies Rita and Ruthie as her sisters in the margins, and Lindley’s organic performance crystallizes that connection with subdued honesty. The script isn’t quite so graceful. While the violence it visits upon Pam is regrettably realistic, the heavy-handedness with which it’s telegraphed — and the skittishness with which it’s depicted — is narratively inert and altogether incongruous with the hardscrabble nature of Rita and Ruthie’s existence.
Eventually, the pacing becomes so choppy and episodic that the film begins to betray a turbulent post-production — Judy Greer is used to being cut out of movies, but when the character actress evaporates from an indie after 30 seconds of screen time (banished into oblivion by an errant line of voiceover), it’s a good sign that things got a bit erratic in the editing room. By the time Rita gets romantically involved with a square-jawed dentist (Luke Wilson), it’s all too easy to appreciate the structure that his presence imposes upon her life.
Fortunately, Holmes’ direction is able to pave over a number of the potholes that the script leaves behind. On screen, she convincingly blends her mousy charm with her character’s stray dog stress, but her strongest contributions are made from behind the camera.
When the dialogue clumsily declares that Rita is at her wit’s end (“Why does everything in my life keep breaking?”, she wails), Holmes’ compositions convey a single mother who’s been made cynical by her circumstances. When Rita says that she wants to teach her kid how to fend for herself in an indifferent world, the carefully lit two-shots of Ruthie standing in her mother’s shadow succinctly distill a woman who’s worried about molding her daughter in her own image.
Holmes never loses sight of how anxiously her character is wrestling with two different visions of the future, and that focus allows for moments of exquisite poignancy to wiggle their way into a movie that often feels like it could be the pilot for an ABC Family show. Holmes may not yet trust in her abilities as a visual storyteller, but “All We Had” is just enough to make you want more. Twenty years into her career, she’s made one hell of an introduction.
“All We Had” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Check out Katie Holmes in the trailer for “Touched With Fire,” embedded below: