Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2009 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // January 26th, 2010
There is always one last chance. All you got to do to find it is take a road trip to Tennessee...
It took a while for Aaron Woodley's family drama Tennessee to get off the ground, but with the support and persistence of producer Lee Daniels (who recently directed Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire), the film finally made it to theaters for a limited run back in 2009. In case you missed it, you can now hitch a ride to the Volunteer State on DVD.
Adam Rothenberg and Ethan Peck star as Carter and Ellis, two brothers who moved from Tennessee to New Mexico a bunch of years ago to get their mother away from their abusive father. Their mom has since passed away, and the two guys are living a simple, quiet life in the middle of the desert.
Things change however when Ellis falls ill and is diagnosed with leukemia, and because Carter isn't a match for a bone marrow transplant, the brothers quickly decide to drive back to their hometown in Tennessee and track down their estranged father. Neither is ready for the adventures they encounter along the way.
Aaron Woodley's Tennessee has a bunch of good things going for it, but it's not a masterpiece. However, as yet another road trip drama about a couple of characters trying to overcome a dark past and find new hope, the film definitely does the job. First and foremost, it's definitely a watchable experience. The plot moves along at a steady pace, and boredom is clearly not an issue here. The storyline softens up a tad too much for my taste in the final third of the movie, but up to that point, this film certainly doesn't do any harm.
The central theme of Tennessee is family, of course, and screenwriter Russell Schaumburg did a fine job examining the close relationship between brothers Carter and Ellis. I had some trouble buying the incredibly good nature of Ellis's character, but as long as the movie focuses on the two brothers together, it works. That said, as the tag line already suggests, it's also a film about finding and making the best out of second chances in life.
Tennessee makes sure every character we get to meet onscreen gets to make up for painful memories in the past. For Carter and Ellis for instance, taking this trip back home to Tennessee ends up meaning much more than just trying to find dad to see if he's a match for a bone marrow transplant. Going back to a place that cast a dark cloud over your life can be quite a challenge, and Tennessee helps our brothers find the inner peace they were so desperately seeking for years.
Then there is also the character of Krystal, played with care by Mariah Carey. Krystal is a Texan waitress and passionate musician Carter and Ellis run into on the road, and as expected, she's got a lot of trouble to deal with as well. Krystal's husband Frank (Lance Reddick) is an abusive control freak who finds pride in walking around telling people he owns his wife. To make matters worse, he's also a cop. Krystal, however, has had enough of all the abuse, so she decides to secretly leave him and hit the road with the brothers to try her luck as a singer in Nashville.
I know this starts to sound like a lot to take in, and even though the film does a solid job balancing all these events at first, it's in the final third of Tennessee that things start to fall apart. I'm not going to tell you how it all goes down in the end, but the story falls victim to sudden sappiness and unexpected turns I couldn't help but consider a tad too far over the top. In other words, some of the ways the central characters behave are eventually a little too good to be true.
There are two things I really liked in this film, though: the cast and the visuals. Starting with the latter, I admit Woodley captured some beautiful shots of the picturesque landscapes you can find along the road between New Mexico and Tennessee. I drove from Tennessee to California myself last year when I moved to the West Coast, and I understand why Woodley wanted to make sure to get tons of shots of the beautiful nature surrounding the roads.
What further helps Tennessee are the strong acting performances. Rothenberg and Peck (Gregory Peck's grandson) prove they've got what it takes to be in the acting business, and they bring a lot of honesty and energy to their characters. Even Carey really surprised me here. Unlike in Glitter, she clearly put a lot of effort into her role, and the result is both inspiring and definitely promising.
As I mentioned just above, Tennessee is a visually intriguing piece, and luckily, the DVD does the film justice. The video transfer boasts strong colors and definitely makes the movie's warm visuals look good on the small screen, and the picture quality is crisp and sharp throughout. The audio transfer performs quite nicely as well.
The only special feature you will find on this disc is a 12-minute behind-the-scenes look, which spends the first half of its time focusing on the struggle the producers had in raising the money to make the film. It is quite an energetic piece, though, because it shows Lee Daniels in action as he tries to stay optimistic and gather the funds to make this project possible. The second part focuses on the cast and crew members, how the casting was completed, and what it was like shooting this flick on location. It's definitely a decent featurette; I suggest you check it out if you enjoy the feature.
Tennessee has its ups and downs. While it's not a movie I would necessarily watch again, I was not disappointed by what I saw. The story goes all schmaltzy on us eventually, but I enjoyed many moments in this low-budget drama. Plus, the acting is great and the visual look of the film really helps establish an intriguing mood.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R