By MATT COKER
By AIMEE MURILLO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By JONATHAN KIEFER
By INKOO KANG
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
By CALUM MARSH
Written and directed by A. Dean Bell, What Alice Found is the story of an 18-year-old supermarket checkout girl from New Hampshire—played by the aptly named Emily Grace, in a startlingly effective debut performance—who leaves her backwater existence behind and hits the road for sunny Florida. Like that of another famous Alice, her story is a fractured fairy tale filled with innocent-looking rabbit holes that turn out to be anything but what they appear.
The movie begins with Alice already on the road, seeming as uncertain of her journey as the rust-heap hatchback that carries her. In flashbacks, interspersed like momentary buckles in otherwise smooth asphalt, we see the life she's left behind—the hash-slinging single mom who Alice is embarrassed to claim as her own, the lecherous grocery manager who brushes ever so unsubtly up against Alice, the gun-toting, beer-guzzling boyfriend—and come to understand why she had to leave. Alice knows, as do we, that to stay behind, or turn back, would mean committing herself to a fate not unlike her mother's. Sometimes, in other words, you really can't go home again. Unlike the romantic fantasy of Lost in Translation, wherein Scarlett Johansson's despondent newlywed could drop out and coast through the Japanese countryside seeking enlightenment, What Alice Found is about how hard it is to be an idealist—an optimist, even—when life gets in the way. As one character says to another at a choice moment in Bell's script, "Everyone's got to pay the bills, honey."
Alice's rude awakening comes in the form of a car engine that burns up shortly outside the Pennsylvania rest area where she has already contended with a punctured tire. Stranded and alone, as the iconic freedom of the open road becomes shrouded in evening's dark, she seems poised to become one of those grim statistics people read about in their auto-club newsletters. Then two passersby in an RV, a genial retired couple, Bill (Bill Raymond) and Sandra (Judith Ivey), spring to her rescue. They're making their way to, of all places, Florida, and are only too happy to take Alice along for the ride. Only Bill and Sandra are no more what they seem to be than is Alice, who introduces herself as the daughter of a dentist father (her real dad abandoned her) and a socialite mother. What exactly Alice finds—beyond finding herself, which is the rhetorical part of the title—is not to be revealed here, nor is it quite as sinister as you might imagine if it were. It is, however, one of many ways in which Bell forces us to see characters from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in a distinctly human light, neither ennobling nor pitying.
Shot on digital video inside a real RV, on actual locations along the Eastern seaboard, What Alice Found possesses a rough, handcrafted texture and the intimate intensity of a spare, three-character, off-off-Broadway play. It's a real American independent movie at a time when such things seem scarcely to exist. And it's a superb showcase for Tony-winning stage actress Ivey, who turns a character that might have been a cliché—over-teased hair, dime-store dresses and ultra-twangy Kentucky drawl—into one of the more memorable presences in movies this year. Sandra's motherly warmth, questionably motivated as it may be, engulfs us much in the way it does Alice. What is remarkable is just how much she reminds us of some of the people we've met over the years in our own travels—the stranger seated next to us on a flight or across the aisle on a bus who, in his or her small way, leaves an indelible imprint on our life.
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