Ellie (Imogen Poots) finds herself in Texas to deal with the death of her estranged father in “A Country Called Home.” Expecting to stay for a day, Ellie finds herself wrapped up in the remnants of her father’s life that she finds there, and parts of her own life she didn’t even know existed. What appears to be a short trip becomes a life-changing experience for Ellie, as she reconnects with a long-gone father.
Co-written and directed by Anna Axster, “A Country Called Home” is a sweet and soulful debut feature that explores the many different facets of a parent’s death, whether you knew that parent or not. Long separated from her hard-drinking dad, Ellie is compelled for some reason to try and make it back to say goodbye while he’s in the hospital. Her brother (an excellent Shea Whigham in only one scene), has been too often burned and refuses to go, but Ellie is motivated by some mysterious inner force that pushes her down to Texas.
There she finds Amanda (Mary McCormack), her father’s co-dependent girlfriend, as well as her son Jack (Ryan Bingham) and his young son. Coerced by Amanda into funeral planning and taking care of her dad’s affairs, Ellie gets to know him but also those who remained in his life, like Amanda and Jack. She also builds new relationships, with her grandmother (June Squibb) and grandfather, whom she’s never met, and a young trans country singer, Reno (MacKenzie Davis). Before long, she’s sucked into this world, heartened by the affection and small town quirks, so different from the life she left behind in LA.
It’s refreshing to see Poots in a role such as this, one that lets her easygoing charm shine through. Ryan Bingham, who also composed the stripped down but powerful guitar-based score, is a natural romantic lead here, all chocolatey brown eyes and smooth Southern-tinged voice (the director shooting him does happen to be his wife, after all). McCormack, in a role that’s more comedy than anything else, still manages to infuse Amanda with some humanity, and Davis serves as an unlikely partner-in-crime for the fish-out-of-water Ellie.
The drawback to “A Country Called Home” is that it stays in the same register for almost the entire movie, remaining in a consistently easy, chill groove. The scenes between Poots and Bingham are strangely compelling, given the low-energy pace, which speaks to the charisma of the performers. There are a few slapstick or emotionally high-key moments, but they pass too quickly to really change up the dynamic. Another odd aspect of the film is the way that it feels taken with the “exotic” or profoundly different nature of the American South. Sure, it’s seeing that world through the outsider perspective of Ellie, but sometimes it feels as though they are looking for the differences, rather than the common ground.
A story that’s specific, but universal in many ways, of family complication and connection, “A Country Called Home,” bolstered by the excellent score by Bingham, and Poots’ delicate performance, is worth the time. But the one-note register and limited range doesn’t allow it to leave a huge impression after it’s gone. [B-]