Judge Gordon Sullivan went for a dip. The water's crystal clear.
The deeper you go, the clearer it gets…
I like to be surprised. When I saw the cover of Crystal River, which features Sean Patrick Flanery and Emily Carpenter staring soulfully into each other's eyes, I was expecting a tired, three-hanky melodrama. Instead, I got a decent little mediation on love, death, and small-town life.
Crystal River is the story of Davie Nance (writer Emily Carpenter), a woman who is active in her small town and its church. As the movie opens, she is pregnant for the fourth time, despite the fact that her three previous pregnancies ended in miscarriages. We see her go about her usual charitable activities, including bringing food to her neighbor Mr. Arrendal (Ted Manson, Dead Birds). Sadly, after her daily duties, she suffers her fourth miscarriage. The whole town seems to rally around her for support, but Davie is confused, not sure whether she wants to try again with her husband Paul (Robert Pralgo). Into the mix comes Mr. Arrendal's grandson Clay (Sean Patrick Flannery, Boondock Saints). He's attractive, laidback, and willing to listen to Davie in a way that no one else in the town seems willing to. As Davie's relationship with Clay develops, her relationship with Paul is threatened, as is her standing in the town.
With miscarriages, a small town, and an attractive stranger as plot points, Crystal River seems poised to be a predictable melodrama that includes adultery, shame, and lots of crying. Luckily, the film opts to go in the other direction, offering strong characters, a few surprises, and little of the usual hanky panky between its main characters.
Every one of the denizens of Davie's small town is a clearly drawn character. Although they're drawn from stereotypes (the crotchety old man, the wild choir girl, the insistent preacher), each character is made to live and breathe by the realistic script. The film is filled with folks I feel like I already know, or folks I'd like to get to know better. My standout favorite was Mr. Arrendal. Ted Manson does a wonderful job making him surly but lovable. If you like that type of character like I do, then the film is worth watching for his performance alone.
The script's strengths don't end with the strong characterizations. The narrative template is nothing new, with the handsome stranger and the small town, but there are enough twists here to keep most people guessing. Of the major plot points, I guessed about half of them before they happened. My usual rate with films of this type is over 75 percent, so kudos to Emily Carpenter for doing the unexpected. More important than the twists, however, is the fact that the events in the film are motivated by the strong characters. There were no instances of "She would never do that." Instead, the plot flowed organically from the characters and their situation.
In keeping with the realism of the plot and the characters, the relationship between Davie and Clay was subdued and honest. If this were a Lifetime movie, Davie would have immediately jumped into Clay's arms and had a torrid affair. Crystal River opts for a more subtle approach, showing the effects of a deepening emotional attachment rather than a sexual one. This aspect sets the film apart from the pack of films that are often more about the sexual aspects of a relationship than the emotional attachments that occur between friends.
All is not, however, sunshine and roses with Crystal River. The film has good pacing through much of its runtime, but sags a bit towards the end of the middle third. At 100 minutes, it seems just a hair too long. Also, while the plot and characters are obviously well-crafted, the film is a bit melodramatic. I know people have problems, but to see all these subplots boiling over at the same time strained the bounds of credibility. The film is certainly no worse than any other in the genre, but it did occasionally take me out of the picture.
On the technical side of things we get a clean audiovisual presentation. Obviously not a big-budget production, Crystal River shows its roots without suffering from them. The audio does a fine job balancing the dialogue, which is key for this film. There are only two supplements, a montage of footage shot during production, and a blooper reel. Considering Emily Carpenter is the writer/star of this film, her input would have been greatly appreciated.
Crystal River is not guilty. If you're looking for a decent feel-good, woman-centered drama, this film should go to the top of your list. It won't change your life, but it's far from a waste of time.
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