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Saturday, July 10, 2010

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE -- DVD review by porfle

When you're wading hip-deep in chick flick quicksand, you have to grab onto whatever you can to stay afloat. The lightweight rom-dramedy MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2008) offers just enough good stuff to keep you bobbing around so that the emo undertow doesn't totally suck you under.

Dorian (Anton Yelchin, STAR TREK's new "Chekov") is a rebellious rich kid whose snooty parents have shipped him off to live with his ramrod-strict uncle for the summer in order to straighten him out.  He gets a lifeguard job at a water park, but his real income is from dealing primo weed.  Fellow water park employee Grace (Eva Amurri, THE EDUCATION OF CHARLIE BANKS) wants to be a doctor but can't get a student loan because her irresponsible spendthrift mother Rhonda (Susan Sarandon) has wrecked her credit history and spent most of their savings trying to shove Grace's unwilling younger sister Taylor (Willa Holland) into the modeling industry.  One meet-cute later, and Grace is in the lucrative weed business with an infatuated Dorian.

What seems like the set-up for a brainless teen comedy manages to develop some pretty serious complications as it goes along, while still striving to maintain a quirky charm.  I found much of it cloying--the "dancing in the laundrymat" scene was especially distressing--but I have a low tolerance for quirky charm and hesitate to short-sell it too much to those who get off on this kind of stuff.  In fact, I'm sure there are those who will find this film enchanting, which is fine, but it mostly just got on my nerves.

To be fair, some of the dramatic scenes are pretty well done.  I liked the part where Dorian seeks out his birth mother for the first time, although Yelchin can't quite manage to reach the emotional level he's going for.  The shock and outrage felt by Grace and Taylor when they finally discover the depth of their mother's connivances, and why their father really killed himself years earlier, plays out well without lapsing into melodrama.  Which, to the credit of director John Stockwell (who played the lead role in John Carpenter's CHRISTINE), can be said for most of the heavier moments in the film. 

The trouble is, these effective emotional scenes are almost always followed by a sappy emo-ballad montage (with some truly cringe-inducing lyrics) to let us know how to feel about them and allow the film to wallow in tearful self-pity.  One of the best shots in the movie comes after Grace has a heated exchange with Rhonda--she drives off in her car as the obligatory emo ballad swells from her CD player, and with a wave of disgust she grabs the CD and tosses it out the window.  If only she'd dumped the rest of the film's awful sad-song soundtrack after it.

Fortunately, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE isn't all somber and dramatic, and is often rendered with a rather light touch.  The water park scenes are fun, the weed-dealing subplot is neither as ominous nor as low-brow "funny" as we expect it to become, and even Grace's dead-end fling with self-absorbed rich guy Ben (Justin Chatwin) comes and goes without a lot of angst.  Even her relationship with Dorian remains refreshingly free of the usual romantic cliches. 

I really liked Yelchin in STAR TREK because it was the first time I was able to actually enjoy the "Chekov" character, who was a whiny, faux-Monkee wuss on the original series.  Here, while his character is pretty easy to take, his appeal wears a little thin when he's called upon to emote.  Dorian does grow somewhat during the story, especially when he displays some responsibility in protecting the naive young Taylor during a dicey situation he's gotten her into, and by the end he's willing to make a selfless gesture that denotes maturity. 

Amurri does a pretty good job as the more down-to-earth Grace, and we can identify with her desperation to escape her nowhere existence with the insufferable Rhonda.  Sarandon, Amurri's real-life mother, manages to make Rhonda such a flighty, deluded, thoughtless, and self-centered domestic diva that we yearn to shoot her every time she's onscreen.  Really, my trigger finger got a cramp from blasting an imaginary machine gun at her for an hour and a half.  Which, of course, is a tribute to Sarandon's acting abilities, since she plays the part to perfection.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 1.85:1 widescreen and Dolby 5.1 surround with English and Spanish subtitles.  Extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, and a trailer.

The ending isn't too neatly-wrapped and lets us ponder what will become of these characters, although I'm pretty sure they'll find their way out of the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE sooner or later.  This isn't my kind of flick but I've definitely seen worse examples of the genre, and my guess is that those who do enjoy this sort of thing will find it worth their time. 

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