Promised Land artisan
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Four hot young stars - KIEFER SUTHERLAND, MEG RYAN, JASON GEDRICK and TRACY POLLAN - star in this intimate look at rites of passage in small-town America. With high hopes of even higher dreams, basketball star Davey Hancock (GEDRICK) eagerly anticipates high school graduation and continuing his legacy in the challenging "adult" world of college. But the future holds many surprises and no guarantees for Davey or for his classmates - the all-American cheerleader Mary (POLLAN) and the off-beat "Senator" (SUTHERLAND). Mary is college-bound, but discovers deeper ties at home. Senator is adrift, until he meets the wild-tempered Bev (RYAN), who fills his life with dangerous excitement. As these four young adults hurtle through life's unpredictable turns and harsh realities, they discover that adulthood on the edge of the American Dream is a far cry from the "promised land" they had come to expect.
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The actors are all very young. The film stars a very young Keifer Sutherland (Danny) and Meg Ryan (Bev) as a rather unlikely couple. The real 'star' of the film, the one who gets top billing, is Jason Gedrick (Hancock), whose career has been rather less prominent than Sutherland's or Ryan's. Tracy Jo Pollan (Mary) also stars in one of her few starring film roles. Pollan is now much better known through her marriage to Michael J. Fox.
The plot is a rather simple one. Four characters -- a high school basketball star (Hancock), a cheerleader (Mary), a dropout (Danny), his wife from a western state (Bev)-- all get tangled together in a final blow-up in the small hometown. The film opens during the all-important last moments of a basketball game. Of course, our guys win; the basketball star announces he's leaving for college, and the dropout announces he's leaving town. The cheerleader is left behind, but has hopes of her own.
Fast-forward two years. The basketball star is back home, working as a policeman. We slowly discover during the course of the film that he didn't make it as a college basketball star, and couldn't stay in college any other way. Mary, meanwhile, has gone off to another college, but has come home for the Christmas holiday, and as Hancock tries to rekindle old feelings, probably largely derived from hoping to recapture feelings of past glory, she feels pressured.
Danny, in the meanwhile, has gone out west and married Bev, a strange and wild woman. We learn that Danny has spent time in jail, and has never had a steady job or stable life. We don't learn as much about Bev through her speech, but can assume as much is true for her through her behaviour. Danny and Bev marry is a bizarre Las Vegas wedding ...and begin the long trek back home so she can be introduced to the family for Christmas (something that takes Bev by surprise).
Danny comes home and, in the course of various strange happenings, ends up with Bev in a convenience-store robbery. Hancock is the officer called to the scene, and ends up shooting Danny dead.
There are many unrealistic parts to the plot. Few high school jock stars are as likely to be friendly toward the dropouts as Hancock is toward Danny, for instance. When Danny returns home and goes to a bar, his friends wave hello, calling out 'Hi, Senator!' Apparently, Senator was his mock-ironic nickname in high school. One of his friends asks if he has become a senator yet; I hope that small-town folk aren't this unaware of the ways of political reality!
However, many of the emotions and situations ring true. Hancock's frustration with having reached the pinnacle of his life's glory at age 18 are very present; Mary's resistance at being drawn back into that life, yet still being attracted to Hancock is understandable. Bev is a strange character overall. She possibly represents the wildness that was lacking in the sombre (read - boring) small town environment.
'In a small town like that, you only get to make about one mistake.' Danny says this to Bev, and that is a real insight. Small towns are the same the world over -- those who don't leave remember everything for generations.
The production quality of the film is fairly good, but as one of the earliest of the Sundance productions, it lacked a budget for the final, Hollywood polish. The director, Michael Hoffman, does not have an extensive filmography, but has directed such diverse films as Soapdish, Restoration, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. A little editing. The acting is good, but not great. The script is sometimes lacking, but passing fair. The characters are people who begin to spark an interest, but are ultimately unsustainable. Had there not been the emotional and violent ending (very uncharacteristic for the town, one imagines), there would be little memorable.
This is a slice of American life in the middle; not the top, nothing glitzy or glamourous here, but not the bottom either. A very different view of high school and college-age years than typical Hollywood fare -- hopes have been dashed, if there were hopes at all, and the future stretches out in front, but as a rather bleak picture of sameness.
The film does not have a happy ending. Perhaps even without the shooting at the end, there would not have been a happy ending. Does one want a fast death in a blaze of glory, or a slow death by mediocrity? Sometimes that seems like the only two options for many people, and not just those in small towns. Ultimately, there is no Promised Land here. It is something these characters aren't permitted to enter, because it has been defined beyond their abilities to attain.
This film is largely overlooked, and has many points in which improvement can be made. Ultimately, it hangs together adequately, but not superbly, and perhaps that is ultimately its downfall.