Although the small but loyal audience of Wisegirls had already uncovered the truthful antithesis to the mainstream Glitter jokes, it wasn't until the success of director Lee Daniels' Precious that the rest of the film-going public finally discovered that "Yes, Virginia, Mariah Carey can act."
In what is most likely destined to be dubbed a companion piece to the award-winning Precious since Tennessee shares Lee Daniels (this time serving as producer) and star Mariah Carey in common, the best selling female artist of all time turns in another quietly powerful, entirely charismatic, and believable performance.
And while obviously, especially as an independent film in need of “something extra” to garner theatrical distribution and/or enough interest for its recent DVD release, the filmmakers didn't pass up the opportunity for Carey to croon a song written especially for the film, it nonetheless fits her role as the hard-working, goodhearted Krystal who's all but given up her dream to become a singer.
Essentially spending her life as an always on call waitress, all twenty-four hours of Krystal's day are spent serving others both at a local diner and then grocery shopping in order to prepare for her second job as the beck and call girl of her abusive, domineering, police officer husband.
While astute moviegoers have undoubtedly seen this all before or at least heard it if they're also fans of country western music, in the end it turns out to be Carey's Krystal that ratchets director Aaron Woodley's sophomore film from its 1940's “women's weepie” origins found in Russell Schaumburg's script.
Although her character on the page is far from a ray of sunshine as a battered wife isn't quite the Pollyanna or Mary Poppins that would immediately call to mind, surprisingly she serves film's unforced heart that elevates and alleviates the problems in the overly melodramatic and similarly self-consciously melancholic primary plot.
Walking the tightrope perilously between a Hallmark Hall of Fame or Lifetime Movie approach to homage to three hankie classics by Douglas Sirk, Tennessee centers on two grown brothers who have no choice but to return home to Knoxville, Tennessee fifteen years after fleeing their own abusive situation to gauge whether or not their domineering father could be a bone marrow match for the angelic looking, younger brother Ellis (Ethan Peck).
Having selflessly given up everything to protect his young brother and mother from the father whose favored evening entertainment seemed to be a few more hits than usual, the last thing that Carter (Adam Rothenberg) wants to do is head back to the one place that holds both the horrific and real memories of his past as well as his optimistic, bitterly imagined ones involving his old sweetheart and college football that he never realized.
While we all know precisely where the movie is headed, since the film's “spiritual” themes are spelled out all over the box just in case we had trouble deciphering all of the ways their literal journey is a metaphor for their own personal ones, once Krystal provides the getaway vehicle and invites herself along, the film becomes livelier.
Still, the ultimate message presented to us regarding the importance of letting go and moving on in terms of what happens to the characters may raise a few flags for sharp viewers in terms of the literal and figurative sacrifices that occur.
Likewise, despite the trio of excellent performers who play well off one another, their chemistry doesn't fly off the screen a la old Godard road movies, Cuaron's sexy Y Tu Mama Tambien or even as evidenced in Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent. However, this failing could be attributed to the simple fact that this particular road movie seems best suited to the smaller closed spaces of a television rather than the wide theatrical arena, which we see again and again via the indecision contained in the screenplay itself.
Namely, we're never quite sure exactly where Krystal fits in as initially we assume she's the makeshift mother figure recreating the journey the boys had taken fifteen years earlier when fleeing their TN home and then other times she's written and directed to be a flirtatious fixture for the guys. Wisely, they avoid the latter, which would've no doubt been the wrong move lest it give off a Love Story vibe that may have further irritated those really stricken with disease tired of exploitative plots that use sick characters as metaphors for redemption.
And while in the end, there's just not enough to the journey to make it very Precious nor make us think it will attract viewers in any format other than TV, at least Tennessee manages once more to prove to Carey's naysayers that "the girl can't help it." Simply put, Mariah Carey is a natural in the right role, even if in the case of Tennessee, both the singer and the audience aren't exactly certain just what this one was supposed to be.
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