Our Very Own
Over the years there have been a lot of films about the mentality found in the typical American small town. Usually it entails the older generation being trapped and the younger ones yearning to somehow find a way out. You might think that the topic has been played out but first time writer-director Cameron Watson has provided a fresh approach to this venerable theme. His film ‘Our Very Own’ looks at five teenagers in a small town who hope a celebrity visit will be their ticket out. Instead of just focusing on this desire as the driving force of the film it is a character study of the young people and how they relate to the adults. He has created an interesting, character driven story that has a good deal of heart. Along with a stellar cast of established actors working along side promising up and comers, this film is able to pull the audience into the story. Usually a drama needs conflict to progress. Here this is obtained not overtly but in a nicely subtle fashion. Overall this is a film that you warm up to as you watch. Even if you didn’t grow up in a small town you will be able to appreciate what is motivating the characters and that is a lot to say about a film today.
The film begins rather oddly. We see a part of town that while not busy doesn’t have the feel of being deserted. There is a mixture of private homes and what looks like some commercial property. What is odd is the car that is driving along the street, standing atop it is a dog, gleefully enjoying the unorthodox ride. The car enters the town of Shelbyville, Tennessee back in the 1970’s. We then see a car with five teenage friends sitting inside, sort of like the opening of the television series ‘That 70’s Show’. The young people include Clancy Whitfield (Jason Ritter) and his friend Ray (Derek Carter), Bobby Chester (Hilarie Burton), Melora Kendall (Autumn Reeser) and Glen (Michael McKee). They appear to be just a group of friends with no overt romance going on although Melora and Clancy do seem close. Bobby mentions she has a date the next night and everyone laughs at the lack of such social engagements within the group. This particular evening they have stopped to look at the painting of Melora prominently displayed in the local art/photo shop. Like so many kids their age in so many towns across this country jut getting out in a car is the one touch of freedom they can feel. The five of them want to go to Nashville just to get away for awhile that is if they can get a car to use.
The next day at the local diner the usual customers are in for their meal. Buzz (Steven Griffith) is trying to convince a friend that he wrote all of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits including ‘Jail House Rock’ and ‘Hound Dog’. The waitress offers the latest gossip for the town. The Marquee at the local theater is going up later and apparently a movie star will be in town for a film premier. The big rumor is that a local girl who made it big, Sondra Locke (Elizabeth Cole) will be coming back to town for a local horse show. The kids run out to check things out and find the theater’s manager setting up the sign for Locke in ‘Every Which Way’. Melora does manage to get the car from her acerbic mother, Viginia (Beth Grant) after a few comments about crashing and killing everyone. In Nashville they are not able to get into a disco so they do the next best thing, go to a fancy hotel and ride the elevator, what a fast life these kids have. At home Clancy has a good relationship with his mother, Joan (Allison Janney) who admonishes him to not upset his father, Billy (Keith Carradine) because he is going through a difficult time. Although they are having some financial problems due to unemployment Billy buys a portable television for his son, much to the chagrin of his wife. The kids hope that somehow the appearance of Locke in town will be their ticket out. They speak in terms of a fantasy escape but there is more than a grain of truth to their hopes.
Cameron Watson has had a long and successful career as an actor, mostly in some or the best series television has to offer. This is the freshman opus as writer and director but you wouldn’t know it but watching this film. He has managed to create a film with an easy going style that nicely depicts life in small town America. The film progresses not with overly dramatic situations but through a series of moments. After all it is moments like these that make up real life. Most are repetition but there are some that become pivotal in life. This is how it is for the characters here. There are hopes and aspirations set against the reality that most people in a small town are born and die there. Locke represents hope, not necessarily of the kids getting out of town but of the possibility that you can. There is also the juxtaposition between the parents and their kids. The adults have lived their lives in this town but somewhere deep inside there is still that need to get out. They see in their children the same cycle being repeated. Watson paces this film to perfection drawing the audience in not with flair but with the realism of the story. This is a character driven film that works because the people involved in the production were obviously committed to creating a quality product.
Thankfully there are actors out there that care about their craft. Although they can get more visible roles they involve themselves with little independent films like this. Jason Ritter is the son of the late, great television comic actor John Ritter. He is creating a career for himself on his own terms working on expanding the dramatic side of his abilities. He plays Clancy as a young man who is quietly trapped. He wants more out of life but sees his father’s situation as a more likely indicator of his future. Autumn Reeser may be best known for her work on the TV series ‘The OC’ but there is a lot more to her talent. She is a joy to watch here as the ever hopeful Melora. For his age Michael McKee shows remarkable restraint in his portrayal of Glen. He could have played a teenage boy that is quite possibly gay as a stereotype but instead gives a great deal of humanity to his role. The adults in this film are incredible. Allison Janney is wonderful as the mother force by circumstances to be the emotional strength of the family. She has a gentle and believable chemistry with her on screen spouse played by Carradine. One notable appearance here is by Mary Badham. This is her first screen appearance in 39 years. She is also the Oscar nominated actress for her incredible role of Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
I had the privilege of interviewing Cameron Watson and it was a complete delight. This is a man who is not only talented and has a real future as a director but is also passionate about his projects. When I asked him about the dog on the roof of the car he told me it was based on a real dog, Charlie, who's owner used to drive him around town like that. Like Jeff Goldblum in the 1975 Robert Altman classic 'Nashville', Charlie appears in various scenes binding them together as just part of life in a small town. The character of Buzz was also based on a gentle, slow man who was a fixture in Shelbyville, Tennessee where Watson grew up. We also spoke at some length about how the film is a series of moments. It was Watson's intention to show that life is like that, no overly dramatic scenes just moments that shape our lives. While many have compared this film to 'Waiting for Guffman' the likeness is superficial. In this film the hopes placed on the celebrity coming to town represented the hopes of all teens in a small town, to find something better than their parents knew. Cameron is friends with Allison Janney and wrote her part specifically for her and the collaboration worked very well. We also spoke about the use of colors and lighting and Cameron stated that he wanted to capture the seventies in subtle way which he certainly did. Cameron is a man who is just starting his career as writer-director and I look forward to his future projects.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment in association with Miramax offers yet another excellent Indy. For a studio know for big budget family films it is great that they haven’t turned their backs on films like this that are worth owning yet you most likely never heard about. This is a straight forward DVD release devoid of extras. This is a shame since I would have loved to have had a director and cast commentary. The non-anamorphic, 1.85:1 video is well done. The color palette is clear and realistic. The Dolby 5.1 fills the room in a subtle fashion. This film is one to watch and own.