DVD Review: Barefoot (2014)

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Evan Rachel Wood has long been drawn to tales of unlikely friendships and unusual bonds that develop between people who are brought together by their eccentricities (which have run the gamut from quirky to downright certifiable) in her prolific, impressively diverse career.

Typically opting for one of two character arcs, Wood’s oeuvre often finds her either portraying those at a mental, emotional or psychological crossroads or those guiding someone else through the same metaphorical journey through the course of a film.

From her earliest breakthroughs in Digging to China and Thirteen all the way up through King of California, Running With Scissors, Down in the Valley and The Life Before Her Eyes, Wood’s fearless nature along with her unwavering commitment to each character that she loses her own identity as a celebrity while playing makes her one of the most underrated character actresses of her generation.

Able to strengthen flawed material like Justin Long’s affable but admittedly protracted A Case of You with her chameleon-like knack for making you instinctively buy into whatever role she’s taking on, Wood followed up her Kate Hudson-like hippie waif in Long’s Rom-Com Case with another role that, if played by someone less talented, could’ve become easily stereotypical female date movie bait. Yet because Wood is so genuine as Barefoot’s guileless wallflower Daisy, she makes the film’s formula feel much fresher than you might’ve imagined.

Cast as an innocent young woman (which Meryl Streep once said is the hardest thing to play believably) who’s been sheltered indoors her entire life by a mentally ill parent, after her parent passes away offscreen, Daisy is sent reeling; unable to cope with life outside on her own.

A fish out of water regardless of the situation, when Daisy is placed in a mental institution due to her odd behavior, she takes the first opportunity she has to leave by following Scott Speedman’s down-on-his-luck janitor Jay out the door after he rescues her from a dicey situation.

Offering her a few dollars for shoes despite her proclamation that she’d rather go barefoot, Jay realizes that he can’t just leave the far too trusting Nick at Nite educated, earnest young woman alone to fend for herself in the middle of Los Angeles.

The first decent thing his cad-like character has done up to this point in the film (after saving her from harm, of course) – in debt up to his eyeballs and worried about losing his job which would send the gambling law-breaker to jail, Jay decides to violate his parole in a preemptive strike for what he believes will be the greater good.

Bringing Daisy along with him, Jay sets off for his brother’s wedding down south where he hopes he’ll find his dad (Treat Williams) in a good enough mood to pay off his debt.

Recalling tonally similar screwball inspired romantic comedy movies in the same traveling to a family event and/or destination wedding vein a la the Sandra Bullock genre films Forces of Nature and The Proposal, it’s here where you might say, “wait a minute, I’ve seen this film before.”

Yet whereas most titles would’ve followed the same Bullock movie lead – spending the rest of the running time at the main destination location with most of the action set at the wedding itself, Barefoot decides to use its admittedly short 89 minute length wisely by bringing you something old and something new instead.

Part road movie and part ensemble Rom-Com, Barefoot checks some of the requisite genre boxes including a makeover scene plus charming the future in-laws along with a close call with the authorities (including a cartoonish car chase). But it's much more than simply formulaic as it continues.

Working from a script by Stephen Zotonowski, filmmaker Andrew Fleming laces the laughter with a surprising amount of sweetness combined with sensitive touches that never ridicule the mentally ill characters that Jay considers his only real friends.

Admittedly initially Speedman’s characterization seems slightly disingenuous as it’s hard to imagine the man the film initially establishes as a selfish jerk putting a stranger's needs before his own (especially since they’d just met) but he grows more complex as their relationship builds.

Likewise, the positive message of the film (that’s never laid on too thick) as well as the ample chemistry between the two leads helps you overlook some of its logical inconsistencies.

While not as laugh-out-loud funny as you would assume given the screwball approach, the tone employed by Nancy Drew, Dick and The Craft helmer Fleming is as serious as it is silly.

Frequently bittersweet as if Preston Sturges had been the one to write and direct Holiday with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant rather than George Cukor and blended it with a few of the scenes from Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, Fleming punctuates Barefoot's melancholy moments while making you laugh at the same time in a decidedly Sturges-like manner.

A terrific blend of old and new that despite a clumsy beginning a contrived finale is highly recommended for a rainy evening in thanks to the always effervescent Evan Rachel Wood, Barefoot plays especially well as the contemporary half of a genre double feature when paired with a classic screwball romantic comedy from the past.

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