Prospect: One small town in one of the southern states, population 1832, where everybody knows everybody else and the ubiquitous ‘Welcome To…’ sign on the town’s border feels more like the doors of a prison cell. Rhett Ryan knows these ties all too well but, as a wannabe country singer, he thinks he sees a way out. Two days hence, he plans to take his girlfriend and her daughter to Nashville where fame and fortune may smile on him. First, though, he has to get out of the town.
The town of Prospect, in which Small Town Saturday Night takes place, has many characters, not the least of which is Rhett’s own family. There’s Les, his pudgy, awkward younger brother who pumps iron and shaves his legs in the hope of being a something other than a pudgy, awkward younger brother. Their mother is convinced he’s gay and tries, as mothers do, to do what she thinks is best for him. She’s a domineering, God-fearing woman — what is it about mothers in small-town movies? — and you get the feeling that the family are all quite timid around her. Rhett works at a gas station where his job primarily appears to be covering for his work-shy colleague Travis, and keeping clear of part-time garage owner and full-time drunk, Charlie. Charlie’s son, Donny, is the town ne’er-do-well, just out of prison and himself the father of an absent child. And then there’s Tommy, the law-enforcement officer who grew up with all these people and now has to juggle old loyalties with police business.
Today is Saturday. Rhett’s booked in for his final show in town before leaving, and he spends the day at work and hanging out with his buddies, one of whom is played by Ryan Craig, the writer and director of the movie (if you didn’t know this, as I didn’t, and then checked the credits you will be surprised). Rhett’s girlfriend is having a severe case of second thoughts about leaving town and taking her daughter away from her natural father. All of Rhett’s planning begins to crumble as he too doubts his departure: Leave and maybe make a name for himself or stay to be with the two girls he loves. Everyone has an opinion on the subject. Meanwhile Donny can’t catch a break. Evicted from his trailer, with no job, overdrawn at the bank, and forbidden from seeing his son, he takes drastic action.
Small Town Saturday Night crept up on me in so many ways. For the first twenty minutes or so nothing seemed to happen, and the pace was funereal. But, as we grew to know the characters, a theme emerged. Not, in itself, an original one but the time-honored one of families and communities. There are parents and offspring galore here, as you might expect from such a small community, and it’s how they interact with each other that is important. Donny’s father hates him, Donny can’t see his son. Tommy’s lost his daughter to another man, Rhett, who may even take her away from him forever. The town’s elders keep their own watching brief but rest assured that everyone knows everything going on in the town. Director Craig is a little unsure of himself at times, almost as if he knows what he’s trying to say, but just can’t get it across — a problem I’m all too familiar with. The ending feels contrived and a cop-out compared to what went before, and set a completely different tone to the rest of the movie; it has the feel of a last-minute edit.
The cast list creeps up on you, too. First of all there’s Chris Pine, as Rhett. He’s much better known for playing Kirk in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. His father is played by real-life dad Robert, whose face is immediately recognizable as one of those “seen him everywhere” type of actors. The same could also be said of Brent Briscoe, as Travis, whom I first noted in Sam Raimi’s subversive A Simple Plan back in 1998. John Hawkes is an actor I’ve loved ever since 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, where he played a gawky, awkward loner of a shoe salesman but here Hawkes adapts that gangliness into a mean and wiry Donny. It’s a solid list.
Since Peter Bogdanovich’s sublime The Last Picture Show, small-town America has often been a subject for enterprising young filmmakers. Locations are plentiful and picturesque, characters can be expected to be a little eccentric, and without much in the way of action the production costs are low. Small Town Saturday Night, whilst no Bogdanovich classic, is still a worthwhile addition to the genre. With a little touch-up here and there, this movie could have been a great one.