It’s a story we’ve heard before: Star-crossed lovers who
dream of something more get suffocated by the only lives they’ve ever known.
With “Dixieland,” first-time director Hank Bedford has refurbished this archetype, both for better and for worse. Anchored by honest performances from Chris Zylka, Riley Keough, Faith Hill, Steve Earle, and RJ Mitte, the film intermittently hits and misses as it tries on an experimental docu-fiction form for size. What emerges is a heartfelt, sensory experience of the deep South that comes partly undone by some bold stylistic choices.
Kermit (Zylka) is released from jail after serving a sentence for the attempted murder of his mother’s sleazy suitor. Despite Kermit’s rough-looking exterior, he’s endearingly juvenile: When his mother (Hill) picks him up, Kermit is giddy with newfound freedom, his limbs jittering with a sense of possibility. Though he claims serving time made him a “man,” it’s clear from his boyish demeanor that the real trials of adulthood are yet to come. Back at his mother’s trailer, Kermit awkwardly tries to account for the pair’s emotional distance. His mother seems ready to forgive, but there’s one condition: Kermit must not fall back into his delinquent patterns.
Thankfully, redemption is nigh. Kermit sets his sights on the new girl next door, Rachel (Keough), whose listless facade is betrayed by a reserve of passion just under the surface, utterly at odds with her environment. Times are rough for Rachel; her mother’s dying of cancer and she must find a way to foot the bills. When Kermit spends his first night out visiting the local joint, he’s shocked to find that Rachel has chosen stripping to make ends meet. He watches, transfixed, as she takes the pole for the first time. The leering men and debasing commentary overwhelm Rachel and she becomes a deer in the headlights. But just in the nick of time, Kermit calls upon his natural charisma to pump her up, rescuing her from what surely would have proven to be a nasty situation.
The two lost souls quickly take to each other and form a cocoon of young love. Zylka and Keough imbue their characters with a heartbreaking cocktail of innocence and vulnerability. Keough brings deadpan subtlety to her character (think Kristen Stewart in America’s heartland) and slides effortlessly into the role. Zylka commands the screen in every scene. It’s them against the world, and both characters pour their inchoate hopes and dreams into a relationship that turns out to be merely a brief respite from the forces of reality. After all, Dixieland is where dreams go to die.
“Mississippi is where I’m born and raised,” says a proud local in the first lines of the film, and Bedford makes a commitment to this homegrown sentiment. He steeps the narrative in the gritty texture of down-and-out Mississippi, providing a portal into a part of America that rarely gets this compassionate a rendering. Bedford has an insider’s feel for the languid rhythms of small-town life in the deep South. His characters embrace a love of God and a can-do attitude while desperately straddling moral lines in order to survive. Everyone in Dixieland, including the ramshackle establishments, has seen better days, but the town retains a certain Southern Gothic charm for its off-the-grid flavor. Bedford should have trusted his ability to bathe the narrative in this keen sense of locale.
In a bold move, the director instead opts to integrate documentary footage into the fictional narrative. The interviews with town locals, from junkies to strippers to housewives, are strong in their own right, but they belong in a different movie. Every time we cut to an interview, we’re alienated from the love story. And each time it happens, we grow less and less sympathetic. It’s a transparent effort in verisimilitude. Unfortunately, it has just the opposite effect. At times, the device even feels like a cop-out; it’s as if the director shirked the responsibility of building out authenticity within the film’s narrative world.
Also distracting at times is the cinematography, which suffers from a case of lens-flare mania. When used economically, the flare can prove almost transcendent, but here it’s overused to the brink of parody. The camerawork is shaky—sometimes headache-inducing—and its wandering eye can feel amateurish. But when it lands squarely on the faces of its characters, the camera captures their essences with grace and humility. This humanizes them in a way that’s essential to the success of the story.
After his grasp of the fabric of Southern life, Bedford’s greatest asset is his sense of pacing. He’s particularly adept at maintaining a feeling of foreboding, which serves him well in the third act as Kermit elects to do a bad thing “one last time.” It’s a perfect seal of fate: You know it’s going to end badly for Kermit, but you don’t know exactly how. Eventually, Kermit comes face to face with the realization that his life won’t have a happy ending. In a devastating scene, suspension gives way to grief, and the energy of the entire film descends upon Zylka’s riveting performance. In Dixieland, there are no second chances.
“Dixieland” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.