REVIEW: A Quirky, Gentle "New Waterford Girl"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 7.27.00) -- It's always dangerous when a movie bleeds quirky. Sometimes quirkiness is a sign of desperation, an overreaching desire to entertain and an unwillingness to trust one's own instincts; it becomes a crutch. At other times, it is a blissfully welcome element that elevates an interesting story into truly something special.
The groans begin rumbling during the opening sequence of Allan Moyle's "New Waterford Girl," now playing at New York's Film Forum, which is a combination wedding/funeral -- a young couple, expecting child, are taking their vows next to the father of the bride, who is laid out in an open casket.
"It was cheaper to have her dad's wake and her wedding in one go," comments the groom's mother, approvingly. The priest announces the couple as man and wife. The bride faints. The priest points to her and urges the groom, "You may kiss the bride!"
Heavy-handed quirkiness is layered throughout "New Waterford Girl," but there's a wonderful counterbalance: The otherwise consistently solid writing of screenwriter Tricia Fish, and an assured, diamond-in-the-rough performance by newcomer Liane Balaban. This low-budget Canadian independent ends up being a nice breeze on the cinematic landscape -- not overpowering, but gentle and drifting, like the kind that wafts in from the shore of New Waterford, Cape Breton.
Balaban is Moonie Pottie, a 15-year-old misfit in this small coal-mining town in the mid-1970s. The town is poor, the housing cramped -- Moonie is one of five siblings and a sister-in-law in the house -- and the citizens are proper, God-fearing Catholics. The only girls who escape New Waterford are those who are pregnant, and they leave to have their children away from embarrassment before returning.
Moonie dreams of getting the hell out; she stands by the roadside with a cardboard sign that has "Mexico" scrawled across it, but always ends up hitching a ride with a guy who's merely driving into town. She knows all about other places through her voracious reading, and that's part of her problem, really: She knows too much.
Life is bearably unbearable only through the understanding of a couple of outsiders. Moonie's hip teacher, Cecil (Andrew McCarthy) lives in a mobile home and seems to be running from life ("I don't exactly leap out of that rollaway bed in the morning," he confesses). But because he is an outsider looking in, he can full well understand an insider trying to get out.
Then there is Lou (Tara Spencer-Nairn), a girl from the Bronx who has moved to New Waterford with her mother (Cathy Moriarty), because "that's where the tracks end." In other words, they are running from something, and that involves Lou's father, a boxer of some repute who is back in the States, in jail.
There is a faint light at the end of this mine shaft, however, as Cecil arranges for Moonie to get a scholarship to an arts school in Manhattan and Lou has stirred her up with an interesting new project: When it is discovered that Lou has a boxing champion's left hook, the girls around town hire the duo as avenging angels, smacking the lights out of their philandering, insignificant others. Moonie, with her glowering cool gaze, is the gloom that precedes Lou's doom.
It's when Moyle, the director of "Pump Up the Volume" returning to his Canadian roots, focuses on Moonie's campaign to get her very reluctant parents to consent to her scholarship plans that "New Waterford Girl" really intrigues. In those periods, the previously inexperienced Balaban, an 18-year-old fresh face with a natural dark look and an overbite to die for, can fascinate with her natural charisma.
Far too often, the story meanders and relies on quirkiness, not character, to carry the day. That's too bad because Fish, who grew up in New Waterford and came up with the idea after attending her high school reunion, has a special story to tell. It just needn't be forced down our throats. "New Waterford Girl" is best when it doesn't try so hard.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing critic to indieWIRE.]