Skateboarding champion turned writer/director Steve Berra's feature film debut begins with an ominous blend of voice-over narration and imagery as the troubled young protagonist Jason Prayer (Mark Webber) coolly discusses the impact of bullets as he walks down a wintry Midwestern street, packing a gun in his hand as he makes his way to a gathering crowd. While we aren't sure just what has transpired after a gunshot rings out, the haunting start stays with us, lingering in our minds as the film chronologically moves backwards in time to weeks earlier.
Quickly we become better acquainted with Jason-- an outcast in his Nebraskan football obsessed town-- who seems to be the type of individual who prefers to stay in the shadows or in corners, self-conscious about his outsider status partially as someone just not into the community's pastime and also with an immune disorder that has prevented him from growing any hair. Wearing a wig, hats, or hooded coats in public to prevent stares, he's nonetheless the unlikely and irrational target of the mean-spirited older Chris Klein, an athlete who seems to be permanently stuck in the past recounting his glory days whether or not anyone wants to listen.
After Jason's police officer father dies, he once again sets his mind on escape from his dreary surroundings but out of loyalty to his best friend and second father (Harry Dean Stanton), the dementia ridden, elderly owner and manager of an old movie theatre that specializes in screening films from Hollywood's Golden Age, he holds off. While his family life isn't much better, especially considering his bullying and obnoxious hyper male stereotype brother-in-law Donal Logue (who is essentially playing a second version of Klein's character), a ray of sunlight enters Jason's life when he meets a beautiful young woman who arrives out of the blue to witness Judy Garland's Harvey Girls on the big screen.
Calling herself Frances and discussing a troubled past as a girlhood singing sensation, Zooey Deschanel's Frances inspires, engages and tantalizes Jason, although anyone who has even more than a passing knowledge of Garland's biography realizes that she may not be exactly whom she claims to be. And sure enough, when things begin to spiral out of control in Jason's life, he begins marching towards the path that he took at the beginning of the film.
Yet Berra is intelligent and astute enough to pack a few twists into his movie, which prevents it from falling into the overcrowded realm of independent cinema chronicling the angst of young white males wanting to be anywhere but there in search of something better. However, it's safe to say that Berra hasn't cornered the market of what I prefer to call the "Gus Van Sant Genre" and the bleak and dreary The Good Life is bolstered by some bright spots including Zooey Deschanel belting out "On the Sunny Side of the Street."
And although it features a riveting performance by Mark Webber, the film-- nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival-- isn't exactly one you'd probably find yourself wanting to watch more than once. Not to mention the fact that the endless sea of indies about death, suicidal depression, and coming-of-dysfunctional-age are beginning to wear on viewers' patience, yet this one fares better than most since it seems to come from a more nostalgic and heartfelt place.