In the Wild West, a woman had two choices: she could be a wife or she could be a whore.
I'll let you have two guesses as to which option our titular character, Josephine Monaghan, chooses, but I bet you'd still guess incorrectly. It wouldn't be much of a movie if the main character simply went with the flow and accepted life's choices. When handed lemons, Hollywood rarely makes lemonade; they try to make raspberry tea. Nope. Josephine is one of those spunky women who decided she needed a third option.
Facts of the Case
"Based on a real life."
Sometime in the 19th century, Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis, Titanic, Blown Away, The Usual Suspects), a socialite from the East Coast, is forced to leave her home and family. Josephine was caught having an affair with a photographer, and her husband demanded that she leave. Now, being an outcast and having no other course of action, she heads out to the wild western frontier of America.
A woman traveling by herself is not safe, but she wants to be left alone. She tries to ignore anyone who talks to her, including a couple of soldiers. But, after a while, a salesman (Rene Auberjonois, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Benson) named Hollander comes along and kindly offers her a ride; tired, she grudgingly accepts his gracious invitation. Down the road a ways, the salesman sets up shop to peddle his wares to some local townsfolk. Josephine and Hollander have developed a slight friendship, and he even begins to call her "daughter." As they are selling, the soldiers who passed her earlier in the day stop by the tent. Hollander talks to them, and they soon leave. Later that night, Josephine discovers that Hollander betrayed her and sold her to the soldiers. She escapes but knows she'll never outrun them on foot while they're on horseback.
Josephine finds herself in a small town and goes straight to the general store to buy new clothes; hers were ruined during her escape. But she learns there are no ready-made dresses in the store, only fabric. Looking around, she sees a pile of men's clothes and begins to pick up some shirts. The woman running the store gently reminds Josephine that it is illegal to dress improper to your sex. Undaunted, she buys the men's clothing.
That night, Josephine decides that the only way she will survive out West is by becoming a man. With great regret and sorrow, she cuts her long, auburn hair, scars her face with a hot poker, and becomes Jo Monaghan. Jo picks up some additional supplies and a horse and makes her way to the tiny mining town—more of a camp—called Ruby City. As a stranger, she's immediately challenged by the natives but is eventually accepted, more or less. Not knowing exactly why, no one completely trusts the man who doesn't court the pretty, young, and interested Mary Addie (Heather Graham, Boogie Nights, Lost in Space, From Hell). There's just something peculiar about him, but the townsfolk let it pass and Jo becomes part of the town.
Jo has found her way into a mining camp, and she has no idea of what to do. Further, she is a woman, slight of build, and not accustomed to such hard, physical labor. We watch as Jo adapts to being a man, learning to fend for herself in the great wilderness, wanting to simply fit in but be left alone. Will she live happily ever after? Will Jo ever be Josephine again and get to go home back East? Will her secret be discovered, and, if so, what will the townsfolk think and do?
Though Josephine becomes Jo, don't begin to think that this movie falls into the domain of such films as Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. The Ballad of Little Jo is not a comedy in any form; it's a dramatic piece about a woman hiding her identity so she can simply live. The West was a man's world, and Jo had no place. It's a tale of a woman overcoming the odds, fighting man and nature, and coming to peace with the person she has become.
In all, this film is nothing special. In my opinion, its topic is one that doesn't really seem substantial enough to have a theatrical film crafted from it. At best, it's a TV-movie-of-the-week, or maybe even merely a Lifetime movie. Certainly I am not trying to belittle a story of female empowerment and endurance, but the story just isn't overly captivating or exciting. The Ballad of Little Jo unfolds at a rather leisurely pace, with no significant problems (except a mildly evil cattle baron) or surprises for any of our characters. As I watched it, I found my mind kept wandering and wondering when we were going to get to the part where the townsfolk discover Jo's secret and hang her.
Still, as straightforward and unhurried as the film is, it's not bad. I enjoyed it for what it was, but I wasn't overly inspired or captivated by Jo's life—however accurate a representation it really is. There is some quality acting by Suzy Amis in this role. While her "man voice" is a bit of a put-on, she did transform fairly well into a man, albeit a slight one. What I found most appealing in the film was the cinematography. It's not as grand and spectacular as the vistas from Dancing with Wolves, but The Ballad of Little Jo has its own take on the land. Lush and gentle in one shot, rough and foreboding in the next, the Wild West is conveyed as a land that can easily entice a man but will not be easily tamed.
The DVD comes with an average batch of transfers. Video is a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen that has no detectable problems; however, while it has no problems, it doesn't stand out either. Colors are accurate but muted, sharpness is a bit muddy, contrasts are a touch weak, and blacks aren't as rich as you would prefer. There is nothing in the video that will detract from the presentation, but it won't impress you either. Audio choices are more abundant with three different tracks: DTS 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, or Dolby Digital 2.0. Depending on your setup, you'll hear three fairly different tracks. For the DTS track, I was disappointed, as the balance is off. While dialogue is clear, it's always overpowered by music or sound effects as they come in. Also, the rear channels sounded "fake," with too much "wind noise" and other effects. It ended up being distracting. Faring a bit better is the 5.1 track, with more balance and less of these "fake" sound effects. Though coming across flatter than the DTS track, this one may be the superior choice overall. Lastly, the 2.0 track is very weak with no separation or range; it's lifeless and weak.
Aside from a few trailers for The Ballad of Little Jo, Once Were Warriors, Death and the Maiden, and Bitter Moon, and for some DVD-ROM content that I cannot access (lousy, five-year-old computer), this is a bare bones disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's an affirming and inspiring movie of a woman who overcame the odds to make it in the Wild West. A story of courage and determination, The Ballad of Little Jo will remind women that life is full of hurdles and obstacles, and that they must have the energy and drive to overcome them. Not to be pigeonholed or contained, a woman can succeed at anything she puts her mind to.
I hope someone who is familiar with American history can help me with this slight puzzlement: in an early scene where Jo has arrived at Ruby City, the townsfolk force Jo to show them her socks to make sure that Jo isn't a "dude." What is this all about? How does "dude" relate to the Wild West? I have an idea, but I would like to be certain—for my future Jeopardy! appearance.
I am not the intended audience for The Ballad of Little Jo. Still, I found it to be a mildly entertaining film that was pleasing in its own right. If I were a woman, I presume it would be more attractive to me in its message of strength of character and determination. For that reason, I'd recommend this film as a rental to any woman who enjoys that type of film. For everyone else, I think the story is a bit weak and not worthy of any further attention. Not a bad film, just an average film.
The Ballad of Little Jo is hereby found not guilty on all counts. Jo Monaghan is released on her own recognizance, free to be her own person.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Trailers for The Ballad of Little Jo, Once Were Warriors, Death and the Maiden, and Bitter Moon
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