Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Running on Empty

In 1971 Arthur and Annie Pope were just a couple of anti-war radicals among many, but one mistake and seventeen years later they're still on the run from the FBI, uprooting almost every six months as the Feds continually close in. But worse -- now they have children in tow; Harry, who's ten, and Danny who's seventeen, an ace on the piano, and itching to fly the ever-relocating coop to go to school at Juilliard.

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Crank up the Jackson Browne! (They don't actually. Too on the nose? Too similar to Stand By Me? Oh well.)

This is the first movie I've watched just because River Phoenix is in it. I grew up on Indiana Jones of course, and spent plenty of time crushing on young Indy as he fights off bad guys, lions, and snakes on that circus train. And I saw Stand By Me because I expected the movie itself to be great (it is) and got broadsided by that kid's performance. But diving into his less-mainstream filmography, I was expecting movies that have circumstantial importance, that are admirable, well-made, and performed with that Special Something -- but fail to find a personal touch with me specifically. What I ended up with was another favorite coming-of-age movie, and now I wonder how I managed to expect any less.

I was expecting Rebel Without a Cause (not to knock that one of course, I liked it a lot, but you understand) but I was more reminded of this year's Lean on Pete (still my top film of the year) and Billy Elliot. In fact, it seemed very much an all-American version of Billy Elliot, with the background of 70's hippie politics and the auditions and side-focus on music. It could have been sidetracked by the politics, but the family and their relationships were more important. It also wasn't fancy filmmaking, but felt grounded in its time and by the intimate focus on the central family, who are close-knit despite their unusual and often hard situation.

Families that evade the FBI together stay together? They have secret signals and code words and everything!

While Phoenix's Danny is the main protagonist, his parents both have clear cut arcs that feel secondary only by a hair. The scene between Annie and her father is probably the most important of the whole film. It brings the theme together. It becomes an emotional center. And it's a huge turning point of the plot. My favorite scene though, hands down was the birthday dinner. The common chatter, the gift-giving, the dancing and singing to James Taylor's Fire and Rain. Coming-of-agers always have the best dinner scenes, don't they?

And Phoenix does That Thing where the character is always hiding, and it draws you in. Camera placement has a lot to do with it. Long takes are used too, and the camera is most often set unobtrusively behind, to the side, or far away from the actors, allowing the scenes play out like watching real life. In one dinner scene Danny's head is framed directly behind his dad's. But River also hides behind his floppy hair, and wanders around the frame spontaneously. It makes you look for the character, and as I understand it, physically looking for a character helps engage with the emotional journey study too.

He also plays the piano. Like, for real.

He has some explosive moments of emotional acting here too, and I love how fleeting they are. They flash and blind you instead of lingering beyond their welcome. But mostly, he's just achingly melancholy. It's something that only really works in intimate dramas like this, and can't be faked. You have it, or you don't -- and River Phoenix had it like crazy. I also loved Christine Lahti. Effortlessly believable as a mother, and a daughter (you could see her past in her interaction with her dad) and she would worry in such a stable way, and completely brought to life the parental sacrifice part of the story, emphasized so wonderfully by the poetically ironic way it was written.

Judd Hirsch takes third place -- sometimes warm, sometimes closed and distant. He turns on a dime sometimes, but the character gets a lower level of attention to start. What I loved most that involved him was how at the end of the movie, Danny makes the selfless choice to not abandon his family, allowing Arthur to make the selfless choice to let him go. They both get to be the hero and do the admirable thing, instead of Danny rebelling and his father coming around to accepting it. Martha Plimpton is the love interest, and though I was pleased to see and recognize her from The Goonies, I liked her more than I expected to. Her and River's interaction was extra engaging.

Normally it's the height of laziness to play the same song twice in a movie, but the second time Fire and Rain plays, it takes on a different meaning.

When I think about why I like this movie so particularly well, all that comes to mind is scenes, and moments in the scenes. Memorable details, scattered around involving scenes, that are liberally peppered throughout an engaging story, that holds meaningful themes close to its heart; and it all adds up to something simple but very specific, and full of understated beauty. It wasn't made for me, but I found it, and now I get to treasure it all the same.

I have a soft spot for coming-of-age tales in which the drama is about and around family, and I doubt it will wane anytime soon. Running on Empty is yet another in a long line, that breaks your heart just so you can feel it overflowing, and the effect is as warm, as bittersweet, and as potent as ever.


  1. I love this movie. ❤️❤️❤️ The piano is so legit in this movie and the romance is perfection.

    1. Aw yay, I'm glad to know this movie is known -- for some reason I'd never heard of it before! Agreed. :)

    2. Haha, my mom introduced it to me. ;)